Because Arizona’s basketball program has become a sports adjunct of a TV soap opera like “The Young and the Restless” or “The Days of Our Lives,” the UA doesn’t always think clearly.
How could it? If the program isn’t distressed about Allonzo Trier’s knee, Book Richardson’s indictment or Rawle Alkins’ foot, it must surely worry that the next time Sean Miller’s team doesn’t properly execute his treasured pack-line defense, the coach will combust on the sideline and vanish in a puff of smoke.
Arizona leads the nation in stress and tension. Does anybody have any fun playing basketball anymore?
If the Kenpom.com-type analysts generated statistics for smiling, Arizona would be No. 351 of 351 Division I teams.
Thursday night was a perfect time for Arizona to celebrate its basketball legacy — 30 years ago Thursday, Arizona was ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history. Given the occasion, it could’ve been the first time the Wildcats were able to take a deep breath since the FBI introduced itself to the UA in September.
Instead, the Wildcats struggled for 35 minutes before beating UConn 73-58. At times, Miller huffed and puffed and almost blew the house down.
“We were 3-3 at the beginning of the year and 10-3 is a lot better,” said Miller. “We have had to scratch and claw for everything.”
Thursday was more scratching, more clawing. Do you realize Arizona was a 16-point favorite on the Las Vegas odds sheets? It was more like a one-possession game against a UConn team that is shooting its worst field-goal percentage since 1991, and long ago lost the look of an NCAA Tournament team.
Of particular interest was that UConn’s team and its bench was engaged throughout. They absorbed the moment. The Huskies were a lot like the Gumbys of Arizona’s first No. 1 team, with bench players Harvey Mason and Sean Rooks leading the cheers through a 35-3 season.
By comparison, Arizona’s body language continues to be that of a team beaten down by expectations, investigations and a fall from grace.
Rarely has an Arizona basketball team needed a Christmas break the way this one does. If it’s possible, the road ahead is more difficult than the road traveled. Arizona opens Pac-12 competition next week against No. 3 Arizona State.
But for one of the first times this year, Miller littered his postgame remarks with positives.
“We weren’t a very confident team earlier,” he said Thursday. “We’re much more sure of ourselves now.”
His much-maligned defense?
“I think our defense is turning the corner,” he said.
Exactly 30 years earlier, Dec. 21, 1987, the Wildcats turned the corner. Arizona was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time. It was such a big deal that U.S. Representative Morris Udall, a former Wildcat basketball captain, sent the team a congratulatory telegram at its hotel in Moscow, Idaho.
The ’87-88 Wildcats were the original Fun Bunch. Steve Kerr and Tom Tolbert led the league in laughs.
Something else happened on that happy night 30 years ago. Pitt freshman point guard Sean Miller — yes, Sean Miller — scored a team-high 15 points as the undefeated Panthers rallied to beat Akron and climb to No. 3 in the nation.
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Can’t it be fun again?
One of those who celebrated a bit this week was Richardson, the exiled coach. He staged a party at his Tucson home Sunday evening, the occasion of which was his 45th birthday.
Not all friendships have gone up in smoke during the turbulence of the fall.
One of Thursday’s most cheerful moments came when Parker Jackson-Cartwright swished a 3-pointer to give Arizona a 60-55 lead. UConn coach Kevin Ollie referred to it as a game-changer.
“That was the biggest shot of the night,” said Ollie. “Getting the lead to five.”
Jackson-Cartwright took just three shots in 32 minutes Thursday. He made two 3-pointers. It suggests he has fully accepted his role and it could be a signal that the rest of the pieces on this team may soon fit into place.
Deandre Ayton had the first “single-single” of his college career, with just nine points and seven rebounds. For a man who churned out nine double-doubles in his first 12 college games, it might’ve been disconcerting.
But it wasn’t disconcerting because Dusan Ristic had perhaps his best game at Arizona, scoring 18 points, gathering 10 rebounds and playing 33 minutes. Ristic almost never plays that long or shoots that often. He averaged 23 minutes last season and just 22 this year.
It was Ristic’s performance that might’ve pushed Miller over the hump and put him in the holiday spirit.
“I don’t talk about him enough; he deserves all the credit in the world,” said Miller. “He has practiced almost 400 times at Arizona and I can’t remember one where he didn’t come in ready to practice.”
In Ristic’s brief appearance in the interview room Thursday, he appeared upbeat, actually smiling on several occasions.
Can Christmas be far behind?