Texas Tech distributed a 32-page packet of notes and statistics Tuesday night, all under the bold headline FEARLESS.
How’d that work? The Red Raiders trailed 10-0. They were shaken and stirred, testament to six years of turbulence in which they’ve gone through Bobby Knight, Pat Knight, Billy Gillispie and Chris Walker, and are now operating behind re-re-retread Tubby Smith.
Smith didn’t get too worked up on the Texas Tech bench during Arizona’s 79-58 victory. He didn’t rail at the refs or stomp in protest when his players left Nick Johnson open for a series of three-point drainos.
Fearless? How about DOOMED?
Arizona was playing its first game as the nation’s No. 2 team since March 29, 2003, a mournful afternoon in which it was eliminated a step shy of the Final Four by Kansas, but nevertheless a period in which being ranked No. 2 seemed routine.
Now, more than 10 years later, being ranked No. 2 is met by a greater appreciation and is neither an expectation nor just another day at the gym.
Now, each of the 14,545 in the seats at McKale Center is thinking the same thing: Wouldn’t it be sweet to be No. 1?
Wouldn’t it be a kick if North Carolina chopped down No. 1 Michigan State tonight?
“It’s a healthy thing to talk about,” said Miller, who, to his credit, didn’t play the one-game-at-a-time coach’s card. “Sometime, in your sporting life, an opportunity knocks that doesn’t come around very often, if ever.
“To have a chance to be ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation is something I think all of us would feel very good about. It’s not our end-goal … but when you’re trying, in a sense, for the rarified air to be No. 1, it will only bring out the best in us.”
Arizona spent 22 weeks at No. 2 in the Associated Press poll between December 1987 and that stinging 2003 loss to the Jayhawks at the old Anaheim Pond. If it learned anything for posterity, it’s that being No. 2 doesn’t necessarily lead to No. 1.
It’s a fragile game.
The Wildcats are now 30-9 as the AP’s No. 2 team, and if you want to know what happens from here, it’s not always pretty. Arizona climbed to No. 1 in 1987-88, again in 1988-89 and finally in 2002-03. On each occasion, the Wildcats’ hearts were broken long before the national championship game.
One thing Miller will be able to do between now and the Pac-12 opener next month is see how his team handles success. So far, so good. On Tuesday, the Wildcats avoided a Duke hangover, and the Thanksgiving-break blahs, playing with fire when you might have suspected they’d mail one in.
Arizona’s earnestness was clear when Miller and point guard T.J. McConnell were still working the refs, unhappy with a no-call, when it was 75-54 and McKale Center was half-empty. Not only that, Miller kept McConnell in the game until the final 34 seconds.
There was no letting up on the accelerator, but rather a killer instinct. That’s a good precedent.
Moving up to No. 1 doesn’t appear likely anytime soon. After tonight’s Michigan State-UNC game, the Spartans don’t play a daunting opponent (Oakland, North Florida, Texas and New Orleans) until January, and Arizona must play Michigan on Dec. 14, in Ann Arbor. There’s apt to be some blood spilled in that game.
“We’re trying not to look into the rankings,” said UA sophomore forward Brandon Ashley. “The No. 1 team gets beat all the time by unranked teams.”
The subplot to Tuesday’s game, was Tubby Smith’s debut at McKale. He has been involved, peripherally, in some of the most notable moments in UA basketball history.
If there was a debt, his team paid it Tuesday.
Smith got the break of his career in the spring of 1989 when Lute Olson declined a chance to be the head coach at Kentucky. Smith, an assistant at South Carolina, was then hired on Eddie Sutton’s new staff at UK.
Then, after coaching at Georgia, Smith became Kentucky’s head coach in 1997-98, inheriting the team that lost to Arizona in the 1997 national championship game. The way the 1998 NCAA brackets were aligned, it looked to be an Arizona-Kentucky rematch.
But Utah stunned Arizona in the Elite Eight, and Smith’s first UK team beat the Utes in the title game.
That was 16 long years ago. What goes around comes around.
Arizona was No. 1 in the AP poll when it met Smith’s maiden Kentucky team in November 1997 in the Maui Classic. The Wildcats won going away 89-74, and few could have guessed that it would be Smith’s team, not Arizona, that would win the national title a few months later.
On Tuesday, when their paths crossed again, Arizona was back on familiar turf, No. 2 with a bullet.
This time, unlike 16 years ago, Tubby was in the wrong place at the wrong time.