SAN DIEGO – College basketball’s universal distress signal is a coach touching his shoulders. Time out. Somebody’s making a mess of things.
Maybe in the regular season, Sean Miller doesn’t burn an unscheduled timeout and launch into a riot-act session when his team is up by 13 and there’s 17:24 remaining.
But on Friday at Viejas Arena, Miller was in the DMWM mode: Don’t Mess With Me.
He spent much of his pre-game chalk talk warning his club that Weber State had two skilled inside players, Kyle Tresnak and Joel Bolomboy, but in times like these, against a No. 16 seed, you can’t be sure if it’s just BS.
“Coach told us Bolomboy was a future NBA player,” UA guard Nick Johnson would say an hour later. “But I don’t know if anybody believed him.”
It wasn’t BS. Bolomboy had 16 rebounds.
Miller was a holy terror in the timeout huddle, shouting over Weber State’s pep band. When the whistle sounded to return to the court, UA assistant coach Joe Pasternack followed point guard T.J. McConnell onto the court, pointing to a piece of paper, upon which further instructions were printed.
Arizona would neither sleep on nor be put to sleep by Weber State.
The UA won 68-59, and let’s be realistic: Weber State wasn’t going to win the game if it lasted another 10 minutes or another 10 days. Not to suggest that the Big Sky champions were at times desperate, but when Tresnak got in early foul trouble, WSU inserted James Hajek.
Hajek hadn’t scored a point all season, zero, and had just two rebounds since Jan. 23.
“Someone said that, moving forward, it’s only going to get tougher in the post,” Miller said. “But I don’t believe that. I think Weber State’s two post players are about as good as you can get when you consider how big they are. I think it reminded all of us how hard it is to play in this tournament.”
Given all that, Weber State shot a season-low 30.2 percent from the field. It benefited from a B-minus Arizona effort and some sloppy second-half defense in which Arizona committed 13 fouls, about twice its average. If you play like that against Gonzaga or Creighton, you pack up and go home. But that’s the beauty of being a No. 1 seed. For the only time in this wonderful madness, you get a tension-free 40 minutes, a walk-through almost.
That’s why being a No. 1 seed is so important, and why those teams who earn a No. 1 seed have such an edge.
You get a full dress rehearsal.
In the 20 minutes that counted Friday, Weber State’s best player, guard Davion Berry, was 1 for 8 from the field. Game over.
The UA’s defense, size and athleticism made it so hard on Weber State that statisticians credited Arizona with 12 blocked shots. Its season high had been nine; four of Berry’s shots were blocked.
That was the truest gauge of the difference between a Big Sky champ and a Pac-12 champ.
And although Arizona hasn’t kept thorough records on blocked shots, you could say that Friday’s 12 blocks against Weber State is a school NCAA tournament record. C’mon, who blocks 12 shots?
“They’re big, they’re big bodies that can move and set screens,” said Tresnak, who was limited to three points and two rebounds. His season averages were 11 points and five rebounds. Miller essentially designed Arizona’s defense to eliminate Tresnak; that’s why Bolomboy’s final numbers were bloated.
Once Tresnak was double-teamed and rendered ineffective, Weber State was done. It’s 10-2 lead was window dressing.
“(Kaleb) Tarczewski was just huge, and he could be a rover and step out of the paint,” said Tresnak.
Tarczewski blocked five shots, his career high.
Talk about rising to the occasion.
The shelf life of a victory over a No. 16 seed is, what, two hours? Maybe less. But beating Weber State worked out better for Miller than any motivational speech. That’s because the Wildcats’ sloppy finish — “we were really bad late in the game,” said Aaron Gordon — means they owe their coach a better effort on Sunday, and they know it.
“If we allow another team to take a 10-2 lead, we might not be able to get out of it,” said Gordon. “I don’t know if we had the jitters, but it was a good lesson to see what happens when you don’t come out on top of your game.”
Arizona is 20 years removed from its nasty reputation as a first-round flame-out. Those long-ago losses to Santa Clara and East Tennessee State have been erased by years of accomplishment and advancement. Nevertheless, those scars make you appreciate the beauty of any NCAA tournament victory.
Before Miller left the court Friday, in a TV interview, he said, “We had a couple of guys who didn’t show up, or played scared today. If that happens Sunday, we’ll be done.”
Next time, against Gonzaga, the Wildcats understand the need to be at their Sunday best.