LOS ANGELES — At a certain point, when the basketball is traveling around the Arizona perimeter with the ease of a flowing waterfall, it’s understandable if you start to wonder if all the Wildcats are about to sit on the ground cross-legged, ready to start singing “Kumbaya,” with Sean Miller on guitar.
If they were any more unselfish, they’d be sharing shoes, one-size-fits-all, one-team-hits-all.
On Sunday in a 73-53 win over USC, Brandon Ashley and T.J. McConnell shared the conch shell, both scoring a season-high 19 points.
With the Trojans clogging the paint in a 2-3 zone designed to limit penetration, the top-ranked Wildcats simply shifted a few feet back. Kaleb Tarczewski finishing with just two points on just one shot almost seemed by design.
“USC played a lot of 2-3 zone, and when you have a guy like (center Omar) Oraby in the middle of a 2-3 zone, it can be difficult,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s a rim protector. Kaleb only took one shot tonight and I think a lot of it had to do with how they chose to play the zone.”
Teams are learning quickly that it doesn’t matter much what kind of defense is thrown at the Wildcats; they’ll crack it quicker than a $2 safe.
All Arizona had to do was slide the ball around the perimeter, dip it inside and wait for the Trojans to collapse. Then, once USC bit at the bait, the Wildcats looped it back outside to the poised hands of Ashley, who had double-digit points for the first time in four games, after seven straight in double-figures, and 11 of 13 to start the season.
“Tonight Brandon was the best player on our team,” Miller said. “He had timely baskets. It seemed like every time he was involved with an offensive play, we really needed him to be. He did a great job in the high post.”
Added Ashley: “You definitely don’t lose confidence with a team like this. You know not every night is going to be your night. We have so many different players who can go out and play well, drop 20.”
Sunday was Ashley’s turn to fill the stat sheet, as it was earlier this season against Long Beach State (16 points, seven rebounds), Rhode Island (16/6), Texas Tech 18/10) and Michigan (18/6).
Ashley’s rebounding numbers may have dipped in recent games – he had just two on Sunday, and as he waited for the media, assistant coach Damon Stoudamire strolled by and patted him on the chest, saying, “Is that the first time you’ve had more assists than rebounds, boy!” – but he shot 7 for 10 from the field and added a steal and a block.
Ashley said he was prepared to cede his stats by playing at Las Vegas’ vaunted Findlay Prep, a basketball factory that produces more NBA talent than some states.
“Me and Nick (Johnson, also a Findlay Prep product) really got it easy – just the simple fact we went to Findlay Prep; there you can’t be the man because you have so many talented people around you. Even still, we have a great group of guys and I don’t think any guy is selfish.”
Added Johnson: “You can just see that. When you’re recruited here, you come in here with highly rated people. You’re not going to be the man. You’re going to be one of the men. It’s kind of implied when you’re recruited. Its definitely a transition for some people, but we have a great group who really picked that up easily.”
Miller said that it was part nature and part nurture, that he sought talented players who would buy into Arizona’s team game, but that he also counted on coaching and maturity to help it sink in.
“We have high character players and the one thing I know is you can lose it in about eight hours,” said Miller, who has said this year that the team struggled with that last season. “For us, one of the things last year taught me as a coach is you can’t let anything little get by. It’s always about the win. It’s about playing for Arizona. You have a group of guys who are talented and full of high character, good things follow.”