SAN DIEGO -- When the Arizona Wildcats players and coaches looked at their schedule last summer, they didn’t exactly stop when they noticed Cal Poly was the opening night opponent.
Of course not. They thought about Nov. 14 at San Diego State.
“It was one of the biggest road games on our schedule,” guard Nick Johnson said.
So the Wildcats begn putting things in their offense and defense that would help them on Thursday, even during the summer and early fall workouts. They were things Arizona would probably end up doing anyway – such as trying to deal with a full-court press similar to SDSU’s – but the Aztecs’ presence expedited the process.
“It was just to get prepared – they’re definitely a good team and they have a unique way to play,” Johnson said. The early changes “weren’t necessarily for them but it worked for us.”
UA coach Sean Miller said it also helped that the Wildcats played a closed scrimmage on Nov. 2, against a solid Saint Mary’s team and during a trip that mimicked what a regular-season road trip would be like.
But overall he downplayed the preparations in practice.
“We know how they play defense,” Miller said. “I don’t know if any of those wrinkles worked tonight. We had this game in mind for a long time as we should have because it’s a big game. We scrimmaged away from home to get used to that and I can’t help but think that helps us as well.”
The Wildcats did it in what guard T.J. McConnell said was the toughest environment he’s ever seen, rowdier than any Atlantic 10 arena he saw during his days at Duquesne.
Even as a veteran of some difficult Pac-12 arenas, Johnson felt the heat, too.
“When I walked back in the first time they were booing me a little harder than anyone else,” Johnson said. “I’d say honestly it’s a little tougher than Washington. It’s right there with Colorado.”
Miller went out of his way to praise SDSU forward Josh Davis, the grad transfer from Tulane, before the game.
Then Davis scored two points on 1-for-7 shooting and collected four rebounds, with two turnovers.
“Kaleb (Tarczewski) guarded Davis for a majority of the second half and that matchup was our best matchup against them,” Miller said. Davis “didn’t have a great night… but he’ll have many good nights, I’m sure.”
Aaron Gordon showcased his considerable abilities on the road for the first time as a collegian and, not surprisingly, he was a big topic for the Southern California and national media on hand.
When Miller was asked about Gordon this time, he said:
“He’s an incredible player but to me what separates Aaron Gordon is who he is as a person and his attitude,” Miller said. “He’s a fun guy to coach, a great teammate, a hard worker, a smart kid, very unassuming, and he goes about his business like a true professional. We’re lucky to have him.”
On Gordon’s shooting – he missed both free throws he took Thursday – Miller added:
“If you saw Aaron at the beginning of the summer and watching him shoot the ball now, it’s night and day – and it’s because of his own effort, him working tirelessly to become better. He’s still going to evolve into a better three-point shooter and free-throw shooter but the progress he’s made is a testament to who he is as a hard worker and somebody who loves the game.”
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