All the ingredients for a letdown, or some sort of disappointment, were there.
There was that No. 1 hype. A huge looming road game at Michigan on Saturday. And a respectable opponent who was throwing out a kitchen sink of defenses at the Arizona Wildcats, trying to figure out something, some way, to slow them down.
Yet, after Arizona put away New Mexico State 74-48, this was the conversation inside the postgame interview room:
Point guard T.J. McConnell was asked to grade the game’s two top dunks — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s powerful one-handed jam along the baseline over a defender, and Nick Johnson’s acrobatic 360-degree dunk.
“Um, I would say Rondae’s was all right,” McConnell said, giving a so-so gesture. “Nick’s was … all right. I’ve seen better.”
The ever-smiling Hollis-Jefferson, sitting next to McConnell on the interview podium, put on a mock frown.
“Wow, dude,” he said. “You hurt my feelings.”
It was an easy, fun conversation, just like the way the Wildcats eventually made Wednesday’s game.
They weren’t perfect by any means, struggling to a 10-5 early deficit and leading by only eight at halftime. They had to adjust to a mix of NMSU trick defenses, while Brandon Ashley’s foul trouble slowed his shooting and Aaron Gordon struggled again from the free-throw line, among other issues.
“To be honest, I thought we struggled as a team,” McConnell said. “Some people played better than others but we just kept moving on offense and finding the open man.
“When we do that, I think we’re pretty hard to stop because we’re just an unselfish basketball team. Everyone’s looking for someone else, and when we do that it’s pretty good.”
Arizona finished with four players in double figures, with Ashley scoring 15, including a career-high three three-pointers; Kaleb Tarczewski 14; Hollis-Jefferson 12; and Gordon 11, though he was 1 for 6 from the line.
McConnell also had a typical night with six assists, two turnovers and three steals, while Johnson fouled out but not before he threw down what was, well, maybe only the second-best dunk of the night.
After a steal from McConnell, Johnson took the ball downcourt by himself and elevated for an almost picturesque 360 dunk.
“In the open court, you want to get two points. If you do a 360, you better make it,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “I think every coach feels that way.
“But I can’t coach what Rondae did. I think he grabbed the guy, picked him up, put him and the ball in the rim. That’s what you call going strong.”
Hollis-Jefferson’s dunk gave UA a 32-24 lead with 1:01 left, and the Wildcats carried it into halftime. But by the time Johnson made his 360, the game was pretty much over.
Johnson’s dunk gave UA a 67-45 lead with 5:35 to go and if that didn’t put the Aggies away for good, it may have helped demoralize them.
“Their athleticism and size was a problem for us, on the wings especially,” NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said, later blaming his team for fueling the Wildcats. “No discredit to Arizona, but a lot of our turnovers were unforced, just throwing the ball away. If you do those things, you’re giving them home runs for dunks.”
In the final minutes, Miller began substituting heavily and eventually cleared out his bench, though reserve forward Zach Peters was not present. Miller said after the game that Peters was sick and did not accompany the team in case he was contagious.
Afterward, Miller said he was proud of the Wildcats for playing well against a team that threw so many odd combinations – including a triangle-and-two and a 1-3-1 defense.
It was the Aggies’ effort against the No. 1 team, more than the pressure of being No. 1 itself, that struck the Wildcats the most. And Miller was proud of the way they handle it.
“When you’re No. 1, every once in a while you have a team that comes in with just one thing in mind – and that is to do everything they haven’t done in the past to catch us off guard and upset us,” Miller said. “They played most of the game in a triangle-and-two.
“That’ll work for a little bit but that’s not going to work for the long haul. We have too much firepower.”