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Matchup with Purdue, win or lose, should pay dividends for Arizona men's basketball in March

This will be a taste of that madness

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A funny thing happened on the way toward Arizona basketball being ranked No. 1 in the nation:

The football team got good. Really good, actually.

While the performance of Jedd Fisch’s team has little, if any, impact on Tommy Lloyd’s, what it has done is take away both attention and adoration.

After all, it’s a lot more fun cheering for a team that is surprisingly good than one that was expected to be. With the former, every victory is celebrated and enjoyed, while the latter’s wins are generally greeted with a nod of approval, if not a sigh of relief.

Such is life for a basketball team that is consistently among the nation’s best. And although it is at the top of the rankings for the first time since 2014, it will carry the doubts of a fanbase that has been let down far too many times to genuinely believe this season will be any different than the ones that have finished without a national title or Final Four appearance.

It’s not fair, of course. This year’s team bears little resemblance to any of those that preceded it and besides, just because other Arizona teams ultimately fell short of its goals does not mean this one will.

In fact, more than any of the recent upper-echelon Arizona teams this one seems to have everything needed in order to not only produce a dominant regular season, but go deep into March and possibly play into April.

It’s all been on display through the team’s first eight games, all of which have been wins and three of which have come over Top 25 opponents. Just one of those three was at home, and wow was the 98-73 stomping of Wisconsin satisfying.

But really, this team has excellent guard play, length, athleticism, size, shooting and depth. It plays tough defense, rebounds and can score both in the open court and in the half court.

The Wildcats are balanced offensively, with all five starters averaging double digits, and with a rotation that easily reaches eight and can go even deeper.

It has players who have experienced the biggest of games and had success therein. It plays both offense and defense at a high level, as indicated by top-10 KenPom ratings for both and takes the court with a confident and business-like swagger.

In fact the only thing this year’s Arizona team lacks is an opportunity to play NCAA Tournament games right now, because until then it will remain an unproven bunch to many.

And that’s fine.

Despite Arizona’s impressive start, it’s fair to say it wasn’t supposed to be this good, at least not this soon. The Wildcats were breaking in three new starters, two of whom transferred into the program. The bench had promise but little in the way of collegiate experience, save for what Jaden Bradley brought to the table.

Yet with all the changes and new faces this team seems to have come together in a way a champion must. They’ve won comfortably and been comfortable winning close, showing with every outing that they are a team that will be tough to outplay for a full 40 minutes.

Then again, it’s only mid-December and there is still plenty of time for things to go wrong. It’s hard to imagine the team not losing a game, and it will be interesting to see how that happens and, perhaps more importantly, how the team responds.

Similarly to how one could argue that wins don’t mean as much right now, neither then should losses. It’s all about continuing to get better and being at their best come March.

At its best, Arizona is probably the team to beat. Remember the Wildcats are ranked first for a reason.

Just because Arizona has fallen short past does not mean it will in the future. This weekend’s matchup between Arizona and Purdue, a pair of programs who are looking good this year but suffered early tournament defeats last Match, signifies the idea of believing the past will not dictate the future.

“I own everything that our program’s done, positively and negatively,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said Thursday of the dual early exits being an angle going into Saturday. “I know that experience has made me a better coach and hopefully has made us a better team and better program.”

It’s pretty obvious that when compared to last season this is a better team, at least. Lloyd said he assumes Purdue feels the same about its situation.

“If you’re coaching out of fear of failure for something that happened last year, man, that’s pretty tormenting on yourself,” Lloyd added. “I’m an optimistic guy and I think that’s the only way to get through tough times is to be optimistic.

“And if you’re optimistic and you know good days are coming ahead I think also allows you to stare down your struggles a little bit more, stay in your struggles a little bit more and come out of them better. And that’s what we’ve decided to do as a program.”

In many ways Lloyd did this quietly. In the shadow of both last season’s early tournament exit and a football team that captivated the Old Pueblo, it appears he has built a roster that wants for nothing and still has room to improve.