The BYU debacle reoccurred, but at least Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats got the Cougars out of the way before Christmas this time.

A year ago, in a memory that is probably etched in Miller's brain, the Wildcats returned from their Christmas break to get bombed at home by BYU. Then they limped to Los Angeles to open the Pac-10 season against USC - and lost that game, too - before recovering in a win at UCLA.

"I don't know how smart it is to play a third game in that week," Miller said before the Wildcats were smacked 99-69 by BYU on Dec. 28 of last season.

But this year, the Wildcats have finished their nonconference season on a happy, almost giddy, note at 11-2 after beating Robert Morris 82-56 Wednesday. They have nothing to worry about now except the beginning of Pac-10 play, which will start Thursday at Oregon.

"I like the fact that we have three or four days to prepare on the heels of giving them off" three days, Miller said.

Miller, of course, made sure it happened this way. He's the one who signed off on a schedule that crammed all 13 nonconference games - one every three days - between the Wildcats' Nov. 14 opener and Wednesday's win over Robert Morris.

That way, there was no BYU in between Christmas and the Pac-10, and there was no nonconference obstacle placed in the middle of the Pac-10 season, either.

In addition, the schedule was softened somewhat, with lowly Idaho State opening at McKale Center, two low-major opponents coming to Tucson as part of the Las Vegas Invitational, and the first true road game being played at Rice.

"I like our schedule," Miller said. "I'm fully aware of the amazing schedule Arizona has played in the past and before I came here, and with the teams I coached prior to coming here, we played incredibly tough nonconference schedules.

"But part of nonconference scheduling is to have a real good idea of what's going to help this year's team - not what's happened in the past or maybe where it's going to be the in future, but now. That balance is something you want to create, and I think we've done that."

Miller said Rice appeared to be a dangerous game, although the Wildcats destroyed the Owls 84-57, and he also worried, needlessly as it turned out, about how his team would do against Santa Clara in its first game away from home, at Las Vegas on Nov. 26.

The Wildcats beat Santa Clara easily, 82-59, and played Kansas within eight points despite having Derrick Williams in foul trouble.

It was after that game, and wins over Rice and Oklahoma, that the Wildcats hit their rough spell. They were defensively lackadaisical in the second half of a 73-62 win over Cal State-Fullerton, and when that effort - plus an inability to run a zone offense - carried over to Salt Lake City, BYU shot 52 percent while winning by 22.

"We didn't play well against BYU, but you start to look, we went to N.C. State, played NAU and now Robert Morris - we've played enough home games and certainly played a lot away from home," Miller said. "Part of what you want to develop is confidence. The last thing any of us want when you enter an 18-game, grueling conference schedule is to have a team that's been beaten up a little bit and you have to wonder about restoring their confidence."

So instead of being beaten up, most of the Wildcats left town Thursday on a cushy note. They were given no restrictions, except, if possible, to stay away from pick-up basketball.

"They're not allowed to do that," Miller said, smiling. "If they do that, they're not smart. They're not listening."

Forward Solomon Hill and guard Kyle Fogg both said they planned to go back to play casual ball with friends at their respective Southern California high schools, but both also said that wasn't what Christmas break was about.

"It's just spending time with family," Fogg said.

Miller might accept that. But he didn't even want them to run, not believing in the notion that high-level athletes can lose a step of conditioning over a three-day rest.

"Because we've gone so hard. If you think about the number of days and practices, that (a break) restores the body a little bit," Miller said. "Some of those guys can get on a treadmill. Maybe they shoot the ball one of those days. But I think three days off for them is a good thing."

Miller said the Wildcats would have taken one or two days off anyway, with a long break between games, so they're actually getting one extra day off this time.

And, he hopes, a bit of a mental break, too.

"Every coach has his philosophy, and I remember my days as a player - to me, players really get energized when you give them a couple of days at home," Miller said. "I hope they don't think about anything Arizona-related, enjoy their family, and are able to spend that time where they should be and come back ready for conference play feeling energized and ready to go."



• Who: Arizona at Oregon

• When: 8 p.m. Thursday

• TV: Channel 58 (also tape delayed on FSAZ at 10:30 p.m.)

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM