Arizona’s home sweep of the Los Angeles schools, especially the victory over then-No. 5 UCLA, was needed. Losers of two of their previous three games, with neither defeat being all that close, the Wildcats had slid in the conference standings, fell in the rankings and had the appearance of a team that was heading in the wrong direction.
Then the offense came alive against the Trojans and the defense locked the Bruins down. Arizona moved up to sixth in the country, the Pac-12 title is within reach and the Wildcats are once again among the feared.
In a season where there is no dominant team in all of NCAA, the Cats’ inconsistency is not necessarily out of the ordinary. In fact, ups and downs tend to be a big part of college basketball because, well, it is played by college-aged student athletes.
Every game can present its own unique challenge, in terms of opponent, referees or mindset. Too much can be made of individual wins, while any loss is seen as a harbinger of worse things to game.
It makes a season rather difficult to get through.
“I do always say day to day, but I also am running a tremendous program and an organization. So I’m always thinking big picture,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said after the win over UCLA. “I think big picture, but I also understand the only way to be good in this business is being good day to day. You can’t be so focused on the big picture that you’re missing the now.”
Lloyd’s words spoke to the problem that can come with following, and cheering for, a program like Arizona. Simply being good is rarely good enough. And while regular season losses cause panic, wins rarely lead to similar levels of celebration.
Sure, you beat No. 17 San Diego State and No. 10 Creighton, but you followed that up by losing by 15 to unranked Utah. Knocking off No. 14 Indiana and No. 6 Tennessee was fun, I guess, but you lost to Washington State at home. At home!
Oh, and don’t get us started on that trip to Eugene, where a 6-point halftime deficit turned into a non-competitive 19-point loss. It all but erased the 15 wins that preceded it, because what kind of contender would suffer such a defeat?
What we didn’t necessarily realize then was that most have or soon would.
To be fair, what separates Arizona’s losses from that of most of the top teams is that they are to non-tournament squads and were of the blowout variety. So in a rather obvious way their defeats do not mirror those suffered by the likes of Houston or Purdue, but you better believe most others in the top 10 have suffered similar fates in games they were expected to win.
So now as Arizona is two-thirds of the way through its schedule and nearing the midway point of its Pac-12 slate, perhaps it makes more sense to focus on what Arizona is capable of, both good and bad.
The bad news, as they’ve shown, is they don’t always bring it every game.
The good news, as they’ve shown, is they’re able to beat some of the nation’s very best teams.
Which matters more come tournament time?
While none of the three teams that beat Arizona seem destined for the NCAA Tournament, the Cats are 5-0 against teams ranked in the top-25 when they played. Now, just two of those opponents — Tennessee (4) and UCLA (8) are still ranked, and both those victories came at home.
Yet Indiana, San Diego State and Creighton all received votes in the latest poll, and each was vanquished on a neutral floor. And while we may not have realized it at the time, the win at Arizona State was a good one, too.
Each of those teams presented a specific challenge to Arizona, with different styles and strength. The Cats handled it all with aplomb.
The metrics support the “Arizona is actually quite good” theory. The Cats’ six Quad 1 victories are more than all but four teams, ESPN lists their strength of record sixth overall, and KenPom ranks them 16th, with the 11th-best adjusted offense and now 45th-best adjusted defense.
Not bad, and when you consider the lack of dominant teams this season, it might actually be good enough. Time will tell.
Until then, we now have an even better idea of who and what this Arizona team is. While not as athletically gifted as last year’s version, this one also has the ability to pile up points. At the same time, these Wildcats are even better in the low post and because of that may have something last year’s, which won the conference and earned a No. 1 seed, lacked: the ability to win an ugly, physical game.
That was evident in the victory over UCLA in which the Cats shot 39 percent en route to scoring just 58 points.
“I’m super proud of our guys,” Lloyd said after that win. “Over these seasons, you gotta be able to win multiple ways. Obviously UCLA was able to get that game at their tempo, but I think we were comfortable the whole time.
“Maybe except for that last minute when we were trying to ride out that lead, but other than that, I think we were comfortable the whole time, which is a good sign for our guys.”
Arizona is going to make the NCAA Tournament. What seed they’ll earn or how far they’ll go is anyone’s guess, but from what we’ve seen, there may not be a style they can’t play or a team they can’t beat.