About 40 minutes before it went dark for Colorado, someone at McKale Center dimmed the lights and punched up the UA’s pregame video, a celebrate-the-Wildcats homage starring Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire and a bunch of other former all-stars.
All of the Colorado Buffaloes stood and watched, necks craned to see the overhead screen, which can’t be good for your confidence.
It leaves you with the wrong type of self-worth, sort of a reminder that “these guys are good.”
Midway through Saturday’s video, the well-worn Aaron Gordon block of Xavier Johnson’s shot at the 2014 Pac-12 Tournament rolled. Standing near the Buffaloes bench, Johnson, now a fifth-year senior, gave a half-smile and turned away.
As if he knew what fated awaited him and his teammates.
After the Wildcats won 82-73, Colorado center Wesley Gordon termed the night at McKale Center as “just another game,” but then recanted when by saying “a lot of outside influences affected us: the refs and the crowd.”
It was much more than the crowd and the refs that beat the Buffaloes on Saturday. Over the last five years, coach Tad Boyle’s team is 15-32 on the Pac-12 road, and 12 of those precious win were against the dregs of the league: WSU, USC, Stanford, ASU and Oregon State.
So it’s not like the Buffaloes have been giant killers, this year or any year.
“We lost the game in two areas,” said Boyle, and the first one was free-throw shooting. The Wildcats made 26 and the Buffaloes 10. That’s Sean Miller’s modus operandi, especially at McKale. (The second was not protecting the ball; Arizona scored 24 points off CU turnovers).
But Boyle didn’t have the countenance of a coach claiming his team was jobbed.
“You just have to overcome those things on the road,” he said. “I’m not complaining; that’s just part of it … their fans get them some calls and their coach gets them some calls.”
Boyle knew what was coming. The Buffaloes haven’t won at McKale Center since joining the Pac-12, and that includes the controversial 2013 game when Sabatino Chen’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer that appeared to beat Arizona was reversed. It was a really bad call. Arizona won in overtime, and, well, maybe that’s why Boyle began working Saturday’s C-minus-level officiating crew with some earnestness on Saturday’s first possession.
Even though the Buffaloes jumped to an 18-10 lead, it didn’t help.
“We threw the first punch,” said guard Derrick White. “But they threw the counterpunch.”
Arizona won the way it figures to win most of its Pac-12 games this season. Boyle said the Wildcats are “well disciplined” and “vertical.”
Arizona’s height, with 7-footers Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic, was the game-changer. They combined for 39 points on 13-for-27 on just 27 shots afield.
More than that, Colorado was forced to assign Xavier Johnson, a 6-foot 7-inch wing shooter to guard Markkanen in its man-to-man sets. He was giving up at least 5 inches, and although Johnson outscored Markkanen 26-22, he needed eight more shots.
Arizona has the discipline and the luxury to share the ball more than most teams, and Markkanen is the perfect example He averages 10.2 shots per game, which is fewer than Gabe York (12.3) averaged last year, and fewer than even Nic Wise (10.3) attempted in Miller’s first Arizona season.
But Markkanen is so efficient when he gets the ball that it makes Arizona a devil to defend.
Arizona upended CU’s 18-10 lead and went ahead for good 19-18 when Markkanen hit two 3-pointers and a dunk on a scramble play. At that point, 10 minutes in the game, he had 10 points and had only shot four times.
That kind of efficiency is becoming the hallmark of an Allonzo Trier-less team. Put it this way: Over the previous 10 games, Markkanen had been the UA’s leading scorer just once. In that time, blending into Miller’s disciplined offensive flow, Ristic and Kobi Simmons had been Arizona’s leading scorer three times each and Rawle Alkins twice.
Arizona’s share-the-ball proficiency is impressive. According to kenpom.com numbers, Markkanen shoots on 23 percent of the possessions when he is on the floor. Alkins and Simmons are at 22 percent. Ristic actually leads the team at 26 percent.
Boyle was impressed by Ristic, who is probably the Pac-12’s most-improved player of the season, or close to it.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for guys who improve from their freshman to sophomore year, and from their sophomore to junior year, and (Ristic) has done that,” said Boyle. “He can catch it in traffic and he can finish. He couldn’t do that when he was a freshman.”
The Buffaloes are a few inches short of being a Pac-12 contender. Gordon, who is probably closer to 6-7½ than his listed 6-9, has replaced graduated Josh Scott, a terrific inside player and long a nemesis to Arizona. On Saturday, Gordon played well, with 16 points and nine rebounds, but he’s no Josh Scott.
“It’s hard to get stuff around the basket on Arizona,” said CU’s White. “They shrink the floor well.”
On the first home weekend of the Pac-12 season, Arizona did anything but shrink and shrivel. At 15-2, without Trier and Ray Smith, the Wildcats are probably better than anyone could’ve expected.