LAS VEGAS - You’ve got your 5-Hour Energy, your Six-Minute Abs and now your 35 Seconds of Swarm.
Arizona’s defense cannot possibly be called Desert Swarm; that name is locked up for posterity. But the only UA defense that even remotely compares to the one Sean Miller has put on the court in Las Vegas is the one that had Tedy Bruschi in it.
That football team led the world in sacks. This basketball team leads the nation in swats.
Playing against Arizona’s defense on a 35-second shot clock is like batting away at mosquitoes at a summer picnic. You keep swatting, they keep buzzing.
The Wildcats put the thumbscrews to Colorado on Friday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, winning 63-43. For CU, which had season lows in points scored and shooting percentage, it was 20 minutes of H-E-double toothpicks.
If you asked the Buffaloes to describe Arizona’s defense, they may have confused it with the old 2-2-2 zone, because it seemed like the Wildcats had six players on the court, sometimes seven.
“We stay with it,” said UA guard Nick Johnson. “We limit them to one shot, crash the glass, and we know they’re going to break eventually.”
The Buffaloes left the Pac-12 tournament in pieces the same way Utah did Thursday. Astonishingly, CU shot .294 percent from the field a day after Arizona’s defense held the Utes to .255.
If you had a staff of researchers, combing Arizona basketball media guides of the last 50 years, you would probably find that no UA team had ever limited back-to-back opponents to shooting percentages in the 20s.
That hasn’t happened since they used a peach basket.
At game’s end, Colorado coach Tad Boyle stopped Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell in the handshake line, whispered into his ear and moved on. But that wasn’t enough. McConnell had produced a 12-point, five-assist, no-turnover defensive masterpiece. Boyle was so impressed he sought out McConnell again, stopped him, and engaged in a longer conversation.
McConnell said there was no intrigue to Boyle’s chatter — “I admire him; he’s one of the best coaches, and he was very complimentary,” McConnell said — but you can almost guess what Boyle was thinking.
“Son, you are a rock. You had no mercy on us. Keep it up.”
McConnell is the engineer of the nation’s best collegiate defense, and on Friday night he was like perma-press on the Buffaloes’ offensive schemes. Buffaloes point guard Askia Booker at times tried to take over the game, shooting from anywhere, driving from everywhere, drawing fouls, keeping CU breathing.
But if you look at the final box score, Booker shot just 4 for 14 and scored a mere 12 points — and he was the Buffaloes’ only visible threat.
“OK, listen,” Boyle said, trying to make a point. “They’re a great, not a good, defensive team. They’ve shown it game after game all season long.”
Colorado’s all-conference center Josh Scott had a wonderful season against the league’s other 10 teams, but against Arizona he shot 11 for 31 in three games. He was swarmed. Arizona beat a 23-win CU team by 12, 27 and 20 points and in none of those games did Colorado shoot better than .387 from the field.
It was like a November game against Cal Poly.
“Arizona has two big 6-foot-10 or taller guys coming at me all night, along with quick athletic guards in the back,” said Scott. “That’s a luxury that most teams don’t have. They made it difficult for me to see the lanes or kick it out.”
The TV highlights of Friday’s game will show Johnson’s gravity-defying reverse dunk and Aaron Gordon’s above-the-rim thunder block of Xavier Johnson’s would-be tomahawk dunk, but the game was settled on the front lines, man to man, defensively.
Xavier Johnson, who will famously be remembered for calling out the Wildcats a month ago, predicting a 20-point whipping in Boulder, Colo., popped in a pair of three-pointers, cutting the UA’s lead to 24-23.
Both times, Johnson embellished the moment, thrusting his hands at his hips as if holstering a gun.
All of the Wildcats saw it.
“Oh ya,” said Nick Johnson, nodding his head.
That’s like jostling a beehive. “C’mon, let’s see what you’ve got.”
After that, Xavier Johnson was buzzed; he shot two air balls and was 1 for 6 afield.
The in-game histrionics usually don’t work against superior defensive forces.
“You’ll get a cheap foul, a little elbow, and then you give them a little smirk,” Nick Johnson said. “You know they’re about to break.”
The breaking point wasn’t subtle.
Gordon’s description: “We’re up by four, and the next thing you know we’re up by 20.”
It could be that Arizona’s two best games of the season were its last two, but that would be to ignore résumé-building triumphs at San Diego State, Michigan and UCLA.
About all you can say with authority is that the Wildcats have secured a No. 1 seed to the NCAA tournament and have won 30 games sooner than any team except Lute Olson’s historic 1988 Final Four team that finished 35-3.
Gordon said he “wanted to race back to the hotel” to watch the UCLA-Stanford semifinal game. The Bruins won big the way the Wildcats won big.
Today’s championship game matches the West’s two signature programs. Basketball worlds will collide. Arizona and its fans should be able to work up a good buzz.