T.J. McConnell and his girlfriend spent Christmas break in San Diego, but the Arizona Wildcats point guard still really couldn’t get away from it all.
Not just the game of basketball. Also, the aura of Arizona basketball.
“People were still approaching me about it,” McConnell said, later adding that “it was mostly U of A people, but there were also just some basketball fans.”
Ever the level-headed point guard, the junior had a predictable reply: The Wildcats haven’t even begun league play. They are 13-0 and top-ranked for the fourth straight week — although No. 2 Syracuse received five of the other 60 first-place votes in the AP Top 25 Monday — but UA won’t start Pac-12 play until Thursday against Washington State.
“You’ve just gotta — not really change the subject — but you have to be humble about it and say, ‘This is a long season and there’s a lot of games to be played,’ ” McConnell said. “We’ve still got to work hard in practice and I think if we do that we’ll be all right.”
While Nick Johnson said he mostly stayed on a couch at home in the Phoenix area, the UA junior guard also had an answer ready any time he went outside.
“I was excited to spend Christmas as the No. 1 team. That’s a dream come true,” Johnson said. “But I had people come up to me (to talk about UA) and I just said, ‘We started off like this last year. I think we were No. 3 at the time. We’ve just got to keep it up, keep our same mind-set and finish it off this time.’ ”
The Cats’ return to practice, both juniors said, was a good start toward that goal. Johnson called the workouts on Saturday and Sunday some of the best of the season.
“We pretty much all came to the conclusion that we want to keep this going,” Johnson said. “I don’t want this to be last year. We had a great season last year, but I didn’t think we did what we needed to do in Pac-12 play. … Our first practice was really hyped and everybody was talking and stuff like that.
“We were ready to get back.”
That was a noted contrast to last season, when the Wildcats were beginning to fracture despite a 12-0 start entering conference play. Arizona took a few days off after winning the Diamond Head Classic, then returned to prepare for Pac-12 play, won two close calls against Colorado and Utah to open the season — and then lost at Oregon the following weekend.
“You could see it a little bit in our practices coming back,” Johnson said. “People started thinking about themselves too much other than the principles of when we made that run (early last season) — being a team that’s focused on defense and offense (having) a ton of weapons.”
UA coach Sean Miller said he didn’t want to paint a negative picture of last season’s Wildcats, because they had a lot of success, but it is true that the team went from being ranked No. 3 in the country into a three-way tie for second place in the Pac-12 by the time conference play was over.
That slide, leading to six Pac-12 losses, began in practices around New Year’s Day.
“We were really struggling as a team,” Miller said. “We had certain players who would have loved to play more and cared more about that than the success of the team. We had a group that felt really good being 12-0, almost as if the conference season wouldn’t be as challenging.
“We didn’t realize how hard it is, what it takes in conference play. Our practices leading up to the start of conference play reflected that. It was like pulling teeth, not to a man but just generally speaking. It only takes a few to ruin the practice environment.”
This year, Miller said, things are different. In part because of veterans such as Johnson and McConnell, plus sophomores in Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Gabe York, who went through last season’s conference struggles.
Miller said the Wildcats are now more focused, sharper and mature than they were a year ago.
“One of the best qualities of this year’s team is that we have great group of guys, people, both on the court and off the court, and I think everybody wants to be a part of a winning team,” Miller said. “There’s some guys who could get big numbers and lose and quite frankly they’re happy. I don’t think we really have that right now.
“Everybody’s really tied to each other, and you sense that with how our team has come back over the break.”