The nation’s No. 1 NBA draft prospect missed a couple of late free throws Sunday afternoon, triggering a predictable “OVER-RATED!” chorus from McKale Center’s Zona Zoo.
But this time you wondered if it was directed toward Washington freshman guard Markelle Fultz or seventh-ranked Arizona.
The Wildcats trudged through a weekend homestand against two rank-and-file teams from the Pac-12’s second division, creating suspense when none was expected, straining to beat Washington 77-66 in much the same way it labored to beat Washington State three days earlier.
The Wildcats went from college basketball’s Flavor of the Week to an unexpected role as The Survivor.
It happens all the time in college basketball — seven Top 10 teams lost last week – but rarely on home turf.
“Coming off our (UCLA and USC) success, we were given a lot of respect,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “I’m not sure how well we handled that.”
Miller must’ve broken the NCAA post-game record for time spent lecturing a team that has gone 9-0 in the first half of a conference season for just the fourth time in school history. He canceled his players’ media session and spoke of “a crack in the armor.”
Had it not been so obvious — Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski locked his players out of their dressing room last week — Miller might’ve considered a full-out basketball quarantine in attempt to scare his young team straight.
Either way, his message was sent and received: There will be no cruise control at McKale.
It’s not that Miller doesn’t understand how far his team has come. “We’re 20-2 and nobody has to tell me that,” he said. He is more concerned with how far they can go.
Thus he used Sunday’s victory as a teaching moment rather than, as some coaches might’ve, a platform to say “We’re for real.”
That part was left to Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who has seen a thing or two in 15 years on the visitor’s bench at McKale, losing games by scores of 99-67 and 84-54.
“I don’t know how you guys feel in Tucson, but that’s an awfully good basketball team,” he said without prompting. “You pretty much have to play close-to-perfect, error-free basketball to beat Arizona here, and we didn’t quite do that today.”
The theme of Sunday’s game was supposed to be Fultz vs. Arizona, as if people might’ve been surprised when more than one player disembarked from the UW team bus. But the reason the Huskies are tied for 10th place in the Pac-12 is because Romar hasn’t been able to surround his superb point guard with a better supporting cast.
It’s not that Fultz is the best opposing player ever to suit up in Tucson, or one of the first projected to be the No. 1 overall draft pick. I mean, Elvin Hayes, the Big E, the No. 1 overall pick in 1968, showed up at old Bear Down Gym a few days before Christmas, 1967. Hayes was averaging 36 points per game for Houston, the nation’s No. 2 team, one that was about to engage UCLA’s mighty Lew Alcindor in one of the most famous games in college basketball history.
To prepare for the Big E that day, in which 500 standing-room-only tickets were sold, Arizona announced that journeyman Mike “Moose” Kordik would guard Hayes.
It almost worked: Moose pushed the Big E around the floor, and Houston toiled for an 81-76 victory (Hayes scored 28), then moved on to play, and beat, UCLA in the immortal “Game of the Century” at the Astrodome game.
Sunday’s game was supposed to be a similar warmup for the Pac-12’s “Game of the Decade” (or something like that) when the Wildcats visit No. 10 Oregon on Saturday at Matthew Knight Arena.
There has never been a game in league history in which two 9-0 teams met; sadly, that theme went bust late Saturday when Colorado beat the Ducks.
Arizona didn’t seem to fear the Huskies, which was understandable. Washington has lost to Yale and was carved up Wednesday at Arizona State.
But when the Huskies took a 26-17 lead, a dark period in which Arizona committed nine turnovers and missed all eight 3-pointers it attempted, Miller blew a fuse.
Had not Fultz played like a freshman — a really, really good freshman — shooting 8 for 23 and bricking all four of his foul shots — it might’ve been an expensive lesson in not playing with the proper intensity for the first half.
Arizona won its 20th game before February for just the fourth time in school history, and Romar was impressed with the UA’s ability to play Miller’s by-the-percentages system.
“They keep coming at you,” Romar said. “They don’t swing for the fences every time down the floor. They get a lot of singles and doubles and pretty soon they’ve got enough runs to beat you.”
On Sunday, the Wildcats wore out Washington’s bullpen.
In a few days at Oregon, the Wildcats are likely to need more muscle, maybe even a Moose.