Late Friday morning I turned east onto Paradise Falls Drive and saw Allonzo Trier playing basketball with a bunch of kids at Davidson Elementary School.
I thought “My, god, is Arizona going to play sixth-graders now?”
That’s what happens after 40 of the last 41 nonconference games at McKale Center have been against unranked and unidentifiable opponents. You lose your perspective. I had forgotten what a good team looks like.
On Saturday night at McKale Center, you didn’t need a roster, a press release or properly identified uniforms to recognize things had changed.
How Alabama lost to Minnesota and Central Florida is one of the mysteries of the basketball cosmos. How the talent-blessed Crimson Tide have gone 11 years with a single NCAA Tournament victory is as befuddling as seeing Trier on a playground down the street from my front door.
If there’s a sleeping giant in college sports it is certainly not Arizona State’s football team as much as it is Alabama’s basketball program.
Arizona beat ’Bama 88-82 because it won every conceivable statistical category, and even at that had no wiggle room. If you spent thousands of dollars on a season-ticket package at McKale, Saturday’s game was a good return on the investment.
Even ’Bama coach Avery Johnson thought so.
“We needed a game like this,” he said in a corridor near his athletic director and former Arizona AD Greg Byrne. “It was a true road game against one of the teams we still consider one of the top five teams in the country, no matter what happened in the Bahamas.”
The Bahamas? What’s that?
Once Arizona flipped the calendar, this has become the December Restoration and Face-Saving Tour. In the last eight days, the Wildcats have won two games most teams would have lost, at UNLV and against Texas A&M, and on Saturday survived 40 minutes of havoc.
If Arizona plays against a more talented player than ’Bama guard Collin Sexton this year, it means they’ll be matched against Duke or Michigan State deep into March.
Sexton scored 30 points on a night two Final Four referees, John Higgins and Randy McCall, whistled 48 fouls. That’s almost a record. Last year Arizona was never in a game that had more than 45 fouls.
Fortunately, Trier made 14 of 16 foul shots to balance Sexton’s 15-for-16. Everybody but the cheerleaders were in foul trouble.
“We played with a toughness and a whole lot of effort,” said Sexton, a freshman. “They just beat us down the stretch.”
Arizona mastered the down-the-stretch routine for the third consecutive game. Can you imagine if it had not? Instead, it is again playing like a Top 10 team.
Defensively, Sean Miller’s team is still like a baseball team that throws to the wrong base a few times a game, but it seems to be getting better by the week.
What was so notable Saturday was that Trier needed just six field-goal attempts to score 25 points and Deandre Ayton made 12 of his 18 shots afield. That’s a recipe for success. When your two best players shoot just 24 times from the field and score 54 points, the efficiency is off-the-charts positive.
Other than that, the return of Rawle Alkins drew more noise Saturday than almost anything else.
The A-Train played 22 minutes and was burning coal at an unprecedented rate. He was clearly gassed, shooting an air ball from 3-point distance with five minutes remaining just as the capacity crowd was about to bring down some thunder.
Alkins scored seven points, about one for every loud ovation he received. Imagine how good he might be once he gets in game shape.
Either way, playing the Crimson Tide was beneficial for the Wildcats and their fans, who haven’t had to squirm through a McKale Center game for what seems like years.
Now comes a three-week wait for the Pac-12 home opener, Dec. 30 against Arizona State.
Until then, the Pac-12’s most anticipated game of the preseason won’t be played at McKale Center, Pauley Pavilion or in any of those made-for-TV mini-dramas in the Bahamas, China or the Hawaiian islands.
It will be played at noon Sunday in Lawrence, Kansas, and the team in maroon and gold, Arizona State, which has leapfrogged Arizona, UCLA and USC — pre-season favorites who now have a combined eight losses — has become The Irresistible Story of Pac-12 hoops.
If the Sun Devils are competitive at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, it will establish the most unexpected storyline of the Pac-12 season: the chance for Arizona and ASU to engage in a two-month battle for the league title.
That has not happened in 40 seasons of Pac-12 basketball, but after the way Arizona recovered from its Bahamas trip, coupled with the emergence of Bobby Hurley’s team, the season that a few weeks ago seemed lost, has been found.