It’s finally here
Arizona’s opening night might not have the countdown and “Auld Lang Syne” of New Year’s or the turkey dinner of Thanksgiving or the countless presents of the holiday season.
But for Tucsonans, there might not be a bigger day of celebration in the calendar year.
Particularly this season, as the sixth-ranked Wildcats — who sport their highest preseason ranking since a No. 4 ranking in 2003-04 — open the season with mammoth expectations.
Fans have waited all year for this.
“I just love this,” said Arizona fan and university economics lecturer Steven Reff. “I have season tickets to everything — basketball, football, everything — but when Arizona basketball comes around, that is the thing in town. It just energizes us.”
Without some of the entertainment options of other Pac-12 towns — UCLA and USC have Hollywood and the beach, Cal and Stanford have the Bay Area, Oregon and Oregon State have the nearby thriving Portland arts scene and Seattle has, um, coffee — Tucson is strictly a Wildcats town.
Even to the detriment of other sports.
“It’s Arizona only,” Reff said. “A lot of minor-league teams can’t make it here because it’s all about Arizona.”
But, really, who needs more?
“Having season tickets is perfect — it’s always a great date with my wife, who loves Arizona basketball even more than I do,” Reff said. “In this town, you’ve got to fill the gap, and this is one of the great things to do.”
The big numbers:
Arizona’s record in season openers under coach Sean Miller. The Wildcats defeated Northern Arizona (2009), Idaho State (2010), Valparaiso (2011) and Charleston Southern (2012) before Friday’s win over Cal Poly.
Point guard T.J. McConnell has been described as the catalyst of the Wildcats, blending a mix of precision passing, sharp shooting and offensive savvy. Those who’ve only focused on his offense, however, may have ignored his defense.
With McConnell leading the way, the Wildcats did not allow a point from the 11:36 mark to the 6:19 mark of the first half. When he exited, Arizona wilted, allowing six straight points as the Mustangs cut the lead to 26-25.
The Wildcats took just a three-point lead into the half against the Mustangs, and Arizona didn’t exactly get off to a flawless start last season, either.
The Wildcats led just 43-39 at the half against Charleston Southern before Mark Lyons lit it up down the stretch. Lyons had 15 of his 17 points in the second half as Arizona stretched its lead, finishing off the Buccaneers with an 82-73 win.
The Wildcats had their hands full against Cal Poly, which is ironic, because most teams — literally — didn’t against the Mustangs last season.
Cal Poly, which won a team-record 12 conference games in the Big West last season, averaged just 9.4 turnovers per game in 2012-13.
In the first five minutes alone, the Wildcats picked up a McConnell steal and forced a shot-clock violation and they had already forced nine turnovers with 12 minutes left in the game.
Arizona fans gave a warm welcome to former guard Mike Bibby, who attended the game. Bibby, who starred as a freshman for the 1997 NCAA national championship team, played 14 years in the NBA, most recently with the New York Knicks in 2011-12.
Cal Poly certainly doesn’t appear to back down from Pac-12 foes.
Last season, the Mustangs came back from an 18-point deficit to win 70-68 at UCLA on Nov. 25.
They didn’t seem to back down early against the Wildcats on Friday, either, jumping to a 19-17 lead on the strength of 5-of-8 three-point shooting. Senior guard Kyle Odister was quick on the trigger, hitting three three-pointers in the early going, much like last season, when he had three threes in the win over the Bruins.