Sean Miller summed up No. 1 Arizona’s lofty size advantage over Washington in Saturday’s 71-62 Wildcat win with an apt comparison.
His team is the old Nebraska Cornhuskers of college football, three yards and a cloud of dust, Wing-T, grind-it-out.
Only in Arizona’s case, its three bigs — sometimes four — and the pounding takes quite a bit out of a team.
In short, size matters.
“The analogy I would give is if you’re a really good running team in college football, sometimes the storyline at halftime is different than at the end of the game,” Miller said. “You can wear them down. Carries — you maybe get two or three yards in the first half, they seem to break wide open in the second.
“That’s like our man-to-man defense and our rebounding. We’re not always going to be plus-10 at halftime, not always winning at halftime, but we can wear you down with our size.”
It happened again Saturday.
Despite starting four guards — if you consider sensational 6-foot-5-inch senior C.J. Wilcox a guard — the Huskies dominated Arizona in the post for the first half. Washington shot 56 percent in the first half while claiming a 17-12 rebounding advantage on the strength of forwards Perris Blackwell and Shawn Kemp Jr.
Blackwell had four points and six rebounds, backup Kemp had nine points, and despite a height advantage of 10 inches across the starting five, the Wildcats tied Washington with 18 points in the paint.
“Their four and five man are really big-body players,” said Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, who had just one first-half rebound. “They have a lot of real estate. What they do is walk you down nonchalant, act like nothings happening, then they turn and post you, and there’s nothing you can do at that point.”
The Wildcats chipped away at Washington’s interior, and eventually, the Huskies’ protruding posteriors were sent to the bench. Whittled down by Arizona’s constant physicality, Kemp fouled out with 10 minutes 37 seconds left in the game, and Blackwell played the last 6:51 with four fouls.
“With their size, we needed all the size we could get,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “When (Kemp) went out, we were still OK, but we wore down by the end of the game.”
The problem for Washington, unlike Arizona, is there wasn’t much size Romar could plug in.
Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw and his 83 inches are out because of transfer rules, 6-10 sophomore Jernard Jarreau is out for the rest of the year with a torn right ACL, and 7-foot sophomore Gilles Dierickx has been a non-factor.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats can turn to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson when one of the bigs — Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski — is struggling.
“With so many big bodies, you’re banging every time,” Romar said. “Down the stretch, we could’ve just gotten worn down a little bit. Our guys gave it everything they had, battled, played physical, tough. After so long, it got to us down the stretch.”
It wasn’t just Arizona’s bruising that got to the Huskies, but the athleticism with which the Wildcats paired it. They leapt their way to a 26-17 second-half rebounding advantage and snagged 14 offensive rebounds for the game as Arizona won the rebounding battle for the game 38-34.
Gordon grabbed 10 second-half rebounds, including four on the offensive glass.
“We talked to Aaron at halftime; he had one rebound, no offensive rebounds, and Washington was out-rebounding us at the half,” Miller said. “We did challenge him.”
Gordon eventually finished with 18 points and those 11 boards, his first double-double since Nov. 27 against Drexel, a span of nine games. This, after he started his career with four double-doubles in his first six games.
“Aaron Gordon never gets upset at anyone but himself,” Miller said. “Never seen a kid like him. Sometimes he might be too hard on himself.”
That is, when Gordon and the rest of the Wildcats aren’t pounding away at the opponent.