Scooby the Chihuahua jumped from one basketball to another Saturday night at McKale Center, unerring, doing everything but taking a bow. In the Doggie Olympics, it would’ve been a 10.0.
The crowd went nuts.
Scooby climbed up his trainer Christian Stoinev’s back and stood on his head. And when Stoinev did a handstand, Scooby walked up Stoinev’s back and balanced on his feet.
The crowd roared.
And just before Arizona’s basketball team returned from its halftime break, Scooby walked across midcourt on his two front legs, opened the lid to an old-fashioned boom box, and hopped in.
Scooby was so good, and so well-received, you’d have thought Steve Kerr had returned to McKale, swishing a 3-pointer to beat Duke.
Scooby the Chihuahua was everything UA basketball fans expected from the Wildcats this season, earning one ovation after another, doing whatever necessary, especially when you thought you’d seen it all.
Perhaps Scooby lit the fuse Saturday, because Arizona awakened from a two-game snooze and played about as well as any college basketball team can.
In danger of losing their significance, the Wildcats roughed up USC 81-67 on a night energy filled the arena and Arizona moved closer to another Pac-12 championship.
Sean Miller put some perspective on the week without being asked.
“We are 81-3 in our last 84 games at McKale,” he said.
“Our season right now — the regular season — is down to three weeks.”
It’s Go Time.
Miller didn’t change much Saturday, but his team did.
He didn’t deploy a zone defense. He spent most of the night in his customary freak-out mode on the sideline. And he didn’t bench anybody or activate a forgotten soul from exile.
It was basketball the way Arizona fans pictured it a few months ago. Rawle Alkins was terrific, scoring 20 points just when you began to wonder if he had lost his touch. Alkins shot a combined 4 for 20 in consecutive losses to Washington and UCLA and was MIA when the Wildcats needed him most.
But on Saturday, Alkins was like a Splash Brother, hitting 3-balls from everywhere. The team that seemed to have one foot in the grave came alive. If Alkins is that productive, or even close, the next month, the Wildcats will win the Pac-12 championship and work their way into a reasonably advantageous seed, perhaps a No. 2 or No. 3.
So many Top 25 teams continue to lose, day after day, that most of the coveted NCAA Tournament seeds remain available.
One man like Alkins can change a lot in college basketball, especially when he’s on the floor with Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier.
“They are extremely challenging to guard because they have weapons at every position,” said USC coach Andy Enfield. “This is the first game that the other team has outplayed us significantly in the second half.”
Miller’s one change Saturday was isolating Ayton defensively, assigning him mostly to USC’s Bennie Boatwright rather than have him be a Swiss Army Knife on the interior.
“This team goes as Deandre goes,” said Miller. “His defense sets the tone for a lot of what we do. It set the tone tonight.”
The UA defense that was a sieve against UCLA, allowing 52 percent shooting and 11 3-pointers. It wasn’t an Iron Curtain against the Trojans, but it was effective, limiting USC to 44 percent.
“Our defense was night-and-day different,” said Miller. “Even when they scored, they earned it.”
Saturday’s losses by USC, UCLA and Washington supplied Arizona with a two-game cushion at the top of the league.
The brawl for second place is going to be a classic. Arizona State is back in the picture, and Thursday’s game in Tempe will be one of the most anticipated in the series since the Fred Snowden vs. Ned Wulk days, back when Arizona was still part of the wild frontier.
But even after Thursday’s game, Arizona must hit the Oregon Trail, and that’s so harrowing that a split might be considered a good week.
What else do you expect in this unpredictable season?
If you’ve watched Miller it’s almost as if he’s aging game to game, sort of the way a president ages over four years. He’s got a touch of gray in his hair, his sideline theatrics seem to be never-ending and his coaching, game-planning and roster management skills have been questioned and debated in every watering hole in Tucson.
Some days he’s portrayed as the man who has gone 81-3 at McKale.
Some days he’s the guy who stubbornly won’t play a zone defense when it seems like it’s the only thing that can fix his defensive-challenged team.
Arizona is 20-6. That’s the low-bar level in Tucson. No one’s walking away from McKale Center thinking that a victory over USC means Arizona will go from No One to No. 1 anytime soon.
For all intents, the season starts Thursday in Tempe.