Greg Hansen: UA 4-0 in Big Breaks league, but luck may run out

Far from No. 3 team, Cats must play better to survive Oregon trip
2013-01-06T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: UA 4-0 in Big Breaks league, but luck may run outGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

So carefree was the attitude at McKale Center on Saturday that when Utah's Jason Washburn scored on a dunk eight seconds into the second half, the scoreboard operator didn't register the points.

The in-house score remained 30-23 for almost another minute, as if to suggest, "Does it really matter?" C'mon, it's Utah.

But when Utah scored again, its total jumped from 23 to 27 and the game was on. This time, all 14,545 fans were keeping the uncomfortable score.

In a weekend in which the Wildcats were scared straight, surviving two harrowing finishes, two final shots that might've sent them tumbling into midseason oblivion, one thing became apparent.

Arizona won't be undefeated much longer.

On Jan. 6, 2013, this is not the nation's third-best college basketball team. Not yet. Not even close. Maybe No. 10 or No. 15, but certainly not No. 3.

If the Wildcats return from this week's Oregon Trail unblemished, unbeaten, it'll be more surprising than a blizzard in Gila Bend.

A few minutes after Arizona was again pulled off the ledge, this time with an inelegant 60-57 escape, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak spoke solemnly about "the moment of truth," and how, when all his team needed to turn the nation's No. 3 team inside-out was one stinking jumper, well, it missed. Krystkowiak shook his head. So close.

"I'm convinced," he said, "someday we're going to catch some breaks."

So far Arizona leads the Big Breaks division of college basketball 4-0, but the instinct is to feel that the basketball gods have a storm brewing for the Wildcats, and soon.

Arizona is the imperfect perfect team, and all of it is predictable.

In the Colorado-Utah high-wire act, Arizona's freshmen were flawed defensively, especially away from the basket. The Utes and Buffs combined for 17 three-point baskets, usually a killer total, making CU's Josh Scott and Utah's Jordan Loveridge come off as Pac-12 Freshmen of the Year.

For the first time in their basketball lives, Arizona's young players are asked to play as hard defensively as with the ball in their hands. It's a different game and not always easy to master.

"Teams are giving us their best shot," UA senior Kevin Parrom said. "We kinda made this game harder than (it should've been). We've got a bull's-eye on our back and we have to understand that."

Bingo.

Utah's Loveridge, who was superb, said as much. "We see these guys playing on ESPN," he said. "We want to guard the best guys, play against the best guys."

Arizona coach Sean Miller surely saw some of the weekend's struggles coming. To him, the statistic of the week was that his team had essentially gone through just three true, demanding practices since arriving in Honolulu on Dec. 22.

"On the heels of that, we had a four-day break," he said. "That's 11 days without a hard practice. We need to get three (practices) in a row where we get our saw sharpened."

Arizona's saw isn't dull. No team can be 14-0 in college hoops without significant resources, but unwittingly the last few weeks have not been the type where a young team can work on overcoming high school habits.

Additionally, Colorado caught the Wildcats in an all-too familiar mode where they had bought into some of their publicity and enjoyed some back-slapping. Utah followed, with an extra day of preparation (it played at ASU on Wednesday), and to multiply the problem, the Utes forced Arizona to play its grinding style.

Krystkowiak's system, at least now in his break-in years at Utah, is to run 15 to 20 seconds off the shot clock with a series of screens and cuts before it takes a serious look at the basket.

"You seem to be on defense for an eternity," Miller said.

Arizona prevailed over the game's pace because of its surplus of talent and its flair for playing its best when it absolutely must.

Do you realize that in wild victories over Florida, San Diego State, Colorado and Utah, the Wildcats have outscored the opposition a cumulative 17-2 in the final minute of regulation? That's fabulous.

"I think we can finish whether we're good or bad at the beginning," Parrom said.

The takeaway from the week's sweep - yes, it was a sweep even though it didn't feel like one - is that Arizona was good enough to avoid losing when a lesser team might've gone 0 for 2.

The point isn't to be undefeated in January, it's to be at your best in March. Arizona fans are so spoiled, their threshold of expectations so high, that it's customary to quibble over style points.

That's been the way of life at McKale Center since 1986. It won't soon change.

"We're 14-0 and it's hard to win every game, no matter what peaks and valleys you go through," Miller said. "I wouldn't say this is a valley, but we can play better."

The Wildcats aren't yet to the midway point of the season. They have 16 conference games remaining. Nine are on the road, and by the last of them, March 2 at UCLA, they may look back and say the Florida-San Diego State-Colorado-Utah crucible was easier than what now lies ahead.

Buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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