College basketball is, if nothing else, an endurance test, sort of like the Grand Prix of LeMans, France, in which the fastest cars can cover 3,362 miles in 24 hours.
So let’s just say that Sean Miller’s Wildcats are in the first 300 miles of their own Grand Prix of LeMans, and, well, if you’re 17th or 92nd, who cares?
Arizona’s 91-56 victory over Long Beach State on Wednesday didn’t put any tough mileage on the UA’s odometer, but it wasn’t anything like a Sunday drive to the beach, either.
Sean Miller was so single-minded that he did not empty his bench. Whatever happened to good, old garbage time? When Tyler Trillo and Talbott Denny didn’t get to play the last few minutes, it was a reminder how deeply those three losses at Planet Krypton affected the coach.
Grim is in.
Miller’s post-game media session was like a fire spreading over a dry mountainside. Had he control of the rankings, Miller would surely rank the Wildcats No. 352 of 351, if that’s possible.
“The reality for us is we’re not that talented,” he said. He later corrected to say “we have talent but we’re not overwhelming.”
It was the Rant of the Year in college basketball, but almost no one will ever hear about it.
Why? Because as Miller said when his players hurry home to watch ESPN “SportsCenter” these days: “They don’t show those highlights when you’re not ranked. There are no highlights. You lost three in a row.”
The Bible of College Basketball — Kenpom.com — continues to operate as if Arizona never got on that plane to the Bahamas.
The metric and analytics authority of college hoops ranks Arizona No. 17 nationally. Arizona-slayer North Carolina State? No. 92.
Sometimes you wonder if metrics authorities such as Ken Pomeroy fudge a bit, relying on the eye-test rather than data blinking on his computer screen.
Miller isn’t buying the eye-test.
As he sat in his hotel room in the Bahamas, watching the agonizing videos of his team’s three losses, the TV screen would continue to display a chart listing Arizona’s recruiting class as No. 3 nationally.
“Where’d it go?” he said, full of vinegar.
On Wednesday, the media room surely got the cleaned up version of Miller’s rant.
“The first four minutes of the second half tonight, we didn’t try,” he said.
My favorite, which was linked to his team’s lack of defensive acumen and hustle, was this:
“No one gives you those Buckeyes you put on your helmet for being in the right spot on defense.”
For now, the Wildcats are the anti-Buckeyes.
Yet if anyone knows how quickly things can change in college hoops, Arizona fans do.
It doesn’t require access to KenPom’s numbers to remember the ascendant Wisconsin Final Four team of 2014 that knocked out Arizona at the Elite Eight.
The Badgers opened the year 16-0 and soared to No. 3 in all the polls. Wisconsin? Wonderful.
Then it all came apart.
Noted Wildcat killer Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky played more like a Prius for six games. The Badgers lost five of those six; including three at the feared Kohl Center, where Wisconsin plays a lot like Arizona plays at McKale.
Only one of the five teams to stun the Badgers, No. 24 Ohio State, was ranked.
Wisconsin fell out of the Top 25. There were no Buckeyes at the Kohl Center for three long weeks.
Incredibly, six weeks later the Badgers were in the Final Four and Arizona was in tears.
So, no, Arizona’s Thanksgiving week damage isn’t irreversible.
Of all the subtle and not-so-subtle messages Miller delivered the last few days, the one that most struck me was this quote:
“There’s two things that guys understand: when you run them and they can’t breathe, or you take them out and they don’t get back into the game. Both of those things are going to happen. It’s already started to happen.”
If you mess with someone’s playing time, the message is like a fist in the face.
On Wednesday, that in-your-face feeling surely hit freshman wing-man Emmanuel Akot more than anyone. He played just five minutes against Long Beach State. It seems like only five minutes ago that Akot was to be Arizona’s next Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a defensive-stopper you could ride all the way to the Pac-12 championship.
Akot is shooting a painful 27 percent but his progress toward being the next Rondae is on hiatus. As Miller has gone back to work, individual psyche’s are at risk.
“That’s usually the medicine,” Miller said.
Saturday’s game at UNLV, which seemed like an automatic ‘W’ until about a week ago, is now viewed as a minefield. The Rebels, 6-1, lost in overtime at Northern Iowa on Wednesday, but they also own a 27-point victory over Utah.
When asked what life as a UA basketball player has been like since returning from the Bahamas, point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwrightt said, simply, “It’s been intense,”
Arizona’s pop-a-shot scoring leader, Allonzo Trier, spoke not about scoring but about “team defense.”
Based on Miller’s biting post-game comments Wednesday, the Wildcats haven’t even begun to correct their trajectory.
“We’re a lifeless group a lot of times,” he said. “We don’t play with effort.”
Gentlemen, it’s time to start your engines.