Now it’s clear why the Arizona Wildcats are the No. 6-ranked team in the country.
After stumbling a bit through an 11-point win over Cal Poly in its regular-season opener on Friday, Arizona tore apart a rebuilding mid-major opponent in Long Beach State on Monday night at McKale Center.
The final score was 91-57, but you didn’t have to see the scoreboard to know what happened.
Body language told the story pretty well.
The Wildcats held their Big West Conference opponent to just 27-percent shooting and took advantage of the resulting transition baskets with enough dunks and three-pointers to keep the McKale Center crowd entertained despite the lack of suspense in scoring margin.
“As a team we talked about our identity, and our identity is a strong defensive team,” UA guard Nick Johnson said. “We want to be a top-10 defensive team in the country and get out on the break.”
They did, over and over. Aaron Gordon, recording his second double-double in as many college games, lit up McKale Center first with a dunk on T.J. McConnell’s assist just 85 seconds into the game, and it kept going from there.
Before long, guard Gabe York was hitting Johnson with alley-oop passes in each half, helping York record a 6-0 assist-turnover ratio in a second straight game that is cementing him a role in UA’s rotation this season.
“He’s probably our best lob-thrower,” Johnson said of York, smiling.
York also had 14 points while hitting 4 of 7 threes and stole the ball twice.
“I would say the story so far for us is Gabe York — it’s very noticeable,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “It’s not just in the way he shoots. But for him to have six assists and no turnovers, and having watched him play (well) in our opener, I’m excited to see what he brings to the table. It’s good to see him playing the way he is right now.”
As it turned out though, York, Johnson and Gordon were hardly the only highlight providers. In the end, Brandon Ashley led the Wildcats in scoring with 16 points and pulled down seven rebounds, though he fouled out late in the game.
Ashley was named the MVP of the game chosen as this season’s “Fiesta Bowl Classic,” a remnant of what used to be a four-team early season tournament.
York, Johnson and Gordon each had 14 points, while center Kaleb Tarczewski had 10 points to go with nine rebounds after sitting out the early minutes of UA’s 73-62 season-opening win over Cal Poly because of a sore hip.
Dan Jennings led LBSU with 16 points, as the 49ers struggled from the field and made only 5 of 23 three-point shots.
In all, UA outrebounded Long Beach State 45-29 despite the fact that the 49ers were able to pick up 15 offensive rebounds off their 46 missed field goals.
“It was a great night,” Tarczewski said. “I think obviously the other guys rebounded really well and motivated all of us.”
Meanwhile, McConnell turned in another steady performance at point guard that tied it all together. The junior dished eight assists to only two turnovers, while carefully taking — and making — only one three-pointer.
The Wildcats, who jumped out to early 14-4 and 24-9 leads, dominated their way to a 44-18 halftime lead. That made the second half anticlimactic, but Arizona still outscored LBSU by eight points while giving forwards Matt Korcheck and Zach Peters the first playing time of their UA careers.
Korcheck, a Sabino High grad, began playing late in the first half and dunked in the second half for his first UA basket, while Peters clocked in at 9:45 left in the second half.
It was a big moment for Peters, who endured a long, concussion-filled struggle that included spending the 2012 fall semester at Kansas. He suffered five concussions in 2011 and 2012 between his senior year of high school and freshman year at KU, but left the Jayhawks after the fall semester last season.
Peters improved so much last spring that he committed to Arizona in May to resume playing. He then practiced in all but full-contact drills since arriving at Arizona over the summer, but he wasn’t medically cleared to play fully until a week ago.
He did not play in UA’s opener on Friday against Cal Poly, but Miller decided Peters was ready to play Monday.
“It was nice for our future and his at Arizona that he was able to get out there,” Miller said. “Make no mistake — there was a chance he was never going to be able to do that again. Was nice to be able to see him put a uniform on.”
The win moved Arizona to 2-0 heading into an early season showdown on Thursday at San Diego State. The Wildcats beat the Aztecs 68-67 in the final of last season’s Diamond Head Classic, thanks to a late blocked shot by Nick Johnson.
“It was a great game last year, so I’m looking forward to going there,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard about their crowd and they’ve got a great team coming back. People are going to step up for them.I’m ready. We’re ready.”