Can a top-5 team fly under the radar?
The Arizona Wildcats are playing excellent basketball, arguably their best of the season. They look very much like a team that can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and are once again in contention to win the Pac-12.
Winners of six straight games, they’ve risen to fourth in the AP Poll while they’re ninth in both ESPN’s BPI and KenPom. Most of the latest bracket projections have them as a one or two-seed out West and yet they don’t seem to be getting the kind of respect you’d think.
For the small minded self absorbed @ArizonaMBB trolls last weeks players of the weeks all had a huge impact on their teams big wins and for JTT a return after a brutal injury. Sorry the world of CBB is bigger than @ArizonaMBB— Seth Greenberg (@SethOnHoops) February 7, 2023
Now, the issue here was less about Arizona than it was about ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg’s unwillingness to admit error in not acknowledging Azuolas Tubelis' big weekend and instead try to cast out those questioning him as the real problem. Another issue, and one more related to this column, is that Tubelis — for all his greatness — is not getting the kind of recognition he deserves.
It’s something Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd talked about after his team’s win over Oregon State, in which Tubelis posted a line of 19 points, eight rebounds, one assist and two blocks. This, on the heels of a 40 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and one block performance against Oregon.
“The most quiet 19 I’ve ever seen,” the coach said. “He is playing like a vet. He understands where his opportunities are on the court, and he’s having an All-American type season. I’ve coached those guys, and he’s at that level. He probably isn’t getting that due he deserves. This guy’s a first team, All-American, and you have to convince me otherwise.”
Now, Tubelis earned his second Pac-12 Player of the Week honor and the Naismith Awards also selected him as their player of the week. He’s also popping up on all the relevant watch lists. So it’s not as if he’s playing in total anonymity.
But the lack of notoriety for Tubelis is symbolic of the case for the entire team. Just as Zu is quietly putting together one of the most dominant seasons in program history while averaging 20.8 points and 9.5 rebound per game (for reference, Derrick Williams averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game en route to being the No. 2 overall pick in 2011), Arizona’s 21-3 mark is not too far off from last year’s pace, when the Cats were a popular Final Four pick.
So what gives? Why is neither Arizona nor its best player getting the acclaim they so rightly deserve?
The guess here is because, unlike past standout UA bigs like Williams or Deandre Ayton, or last year’s Wildcats in general, Tubelis and this year’s squad are getting the job done without much flash. High-flying dunks and monster blocks are not really part of the equation, as they’ve been replaced with a quieter, more business-like approach to the game. It’s good for winning games, but not necessarily the hearts of fans and analysts.
In fact, one could make the case that the way Arizona plays has led it to being a tougher opponent than many think. Their recent stretch has shown a vast improvement on defense, all without a truly athletic stopper. It has also seen the return of an effective offense, but without relying on fast breaks.
That’s not to say Arizona is without athletes or that none of its players can be great defenders. Tubelis couldn’t do what he does if he wasn’t an elite talent, for example, and few teams have someone who can match up with Oumar Ballo.
Arizona enters every game with a frontcourt advantage.
That’s been the case most of the season, though. What has really led to the Cats’ recent surge is the improved (consistent?) play of the backcourt, especially Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey. When they, along with Kylan Boswell and Cedric Henderson Jr. are making open threes Arizona will be nearly impossible to beat.
Anyone who watches Arizona knows that. But on a national level, only Kriisa is known and it’s more for his personality than his play. Unfortunately last year’s NCAA Tournament performance did little bolster the reputations of Kriisa, Tubelis or anyone else on this year’s Arizona roster.
The lack of flash combined with the memory of last year’s postseason has led to Tubelis and the Wildcats not being viewed with googly eyes. That’s OK.
Because if Zu and Arizona continue to play at such a high level, soon the rest of the country will have no choice but to watch the Wildcats cut down some nets.