Greg Hansen: Fisher writes blueprint to beat Cats

2011-11-24T00:00:00Z 2011-11-24T07:02:45Z Greg Hansen: Fisher writes blueprint to beat CatsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 24, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Before arriving at McKale Center, Steve Fisher referred to Arizona as "a beatable team," which might be bravado coming from a young coach or from someone like Kevin O'Neill. But when you're 66 years old and your school is 1-14 in Tucson, it means you know something that the average fan at McKale Center doesn't know.

In the San Diego State coach's evaluation of the Wildcats, he surely discovered these halftime scores from earlier games at McKale:

• Arizona 32, Valpo 30.

• Duquesne 30, Arizona 28.

• Ball State 38, Arizona 29.

So when San Diego State blazed to a 21-4 lead Wednesday night, which was enough equity to beat the Wildcats 61-57, Fisher was the last man in the building who would say "I'm shocked."

His team whooped and hollered so loudly you could hear them in the corridor outside the locker room, but this wasn't an upset.

Even though the Wildcats rallied to beat the first three mid-majors on the schedule, and even though the Aztecs are unranked and unlikely to get within 10 victories of last year's historic 34-3 record, there was no awe.

"We hit 'em in the mouth first," said Aztecs wing man Chase Tapley, who was the best player on the court, scoring 17 points. "We can play with anybody in the country and now people should know it."

Arizona didn't beat Valpo, Ball State or Duquesne by double figures, struggling from start to finish. On Wednesday night, the Wildcats didn't get to the finish. When they closed to within 57-51 with 3:35 remaining, they failed to score on their next five possessions.

"When you come off a season, 34 wins, like San Diego State did, even the role players believe," said UA coach Sean Miller. "They've done a good job, seamlessly, in my opinion, from last year to this year. Watching them on film, I knew this would be a really tough game for us."

Fisher was more to the point. His club beat Long Beach State, which had shocked Pitt. After beating the 49ers, San Diego State had no fear.

"You've gotta believe you're good," said Fisher. "And our kids believe they're good."

The Aztecs are nowhere near as good as the three nonconference teams who have taken Arizona apart at McKale over the last 15 seasons. In 1996, Syracuse won here 79-70; in 2001, Kansas crushed the Wildcats here 105-97; and in 2007, North Carolina humbled Arizona here 92-64.

All of those losing UA teams were more skilled and experienced that this team, and San Diego State is nowhere near the level of the vintage KU, UNC and Syracuse clubs. But on Wednesday, the Aztecs not only had more belief than Arizona, they had more weapons and a game plan that worked effectively.

Fisher and his staff knew that Arizona ranked No. 9 in the Pac-12 in shooting (.423) and, when they won, were beating people with a parade of free throws and open three-point shooting.

"So we decided we had to cut off their three-point shooters and make their big guys take those shots," said guard James Rahon. "It worked."

Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry combined to go 2 for 10 from three-point distance. And Fisher's do-not-foul-needlessly edict was also wisdom from the bench. The team shot a dismal .333.

"That's something we have to look at," said Miller. "I think Jesse and Solomon were the two guys they really dared to shoot tonight. We have to take a look at those guys shooting (so many) threes."

Fisher's team further executed its game plan by not falling into the trap that kills so many McKale Center visitors. They did not get pushy. Arizona attempted just 17 foul shots. When it beat Ball State, it took 43. When it dispatched Valpo and Duquesne, it combined for 66.

"The first thing we wanted to do," said Fisher, "was make sure they didn't shoot 30 foul shots."

The Aztecs played smart. Senior Tim Shelton drew six charging fouls. That's got to be a record two ways. First, who draws six charges in a game? Second, how many times do the refs at McKale give a visiting player six calls?

One suspects that Miller, in his inner coaching soul, knew Arizona was going to get thumped sooner rather than later. His team has no go-to shooter yet, no size, and it has a dangerous weakness while attempting to play interior defense.

Furthermore, the most talented players on the team are freshmen guards Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner. They are in the first lap of a very long race.

"We always have to be the harder-playing team," said Miller. "Clearly, there are a lot of bigger teams and more experienced teams out there."

Tucson usually reacts with paranoia whenever the Wildcats lose a home game, and this will be no different. But remember this: San Diego State has won far more games over the last six seasons than Arizona. The Aztecs are 157-56 dating to 2006; Arizona is 130-78.

Miller's advice? "Don't be too defeated when we don't do well."

Indeed. There could be more of it to come.

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