published Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Arizona's Cactus Cats could win it all

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Mark Wiedmer's weekly look at NCAA teams that have Final Four dreams.

Louisville Cardinals basketball dynasty a possibility

  • photo
    Arizona's Aaron Gordon (11) posts up against Southern University's Calvin Godfrey. Gordon, a freshman, has added extra size and power in the paint for the Wildcats this season.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It may go down as the best nonconference game played this whole basketball season. But after watching Arizona strut into his Crisler Center in mid-December and waltz out with a 72-70 win, Michigan coach John Beilein spent most of his postgame news conference discussing the victorious Wildcats.

"I've had an opportunity to play a lot of great teams, teams that have won national championships," said Beilein, whose own Wolverines reached the NCAA title game last spring before losing to Louisville. "But this [Arizona team] is as solid, well-coached and put together as any team I've seen."

On the Saturday afternoon that the Michigan boss spoke those words, 'Zona had just improved to 11-0. A month later, the top-ranked Wildcats are 17-0 overall and 4-0 in the Pac-12, their best start in school history.

"We're really excited about it -- we really are," Cactus Cats coach Sean Miller said following Sunday night's 73-53 win at Southern Cal, which surpassed the 1931-32 team's 16-0 start. "We talked about it and it's something I think all of us will really cherish. Any school record you break at Arizona in the basketball program is a real record because of the great tradition that we have."

Few schools in the country could match Arizona's tradition from 1988 to 2001, when it reached three Elite Eights and four Final Fours, winning the title in 1997. With the silver-haired Lute Olson at the helm, the Wildcats arguably became the best of the West, briefly surpassing UCLA for Pac-8-10-12 superiority.

But Olson retired in 2007, forcing the school to muddle along with former Tennessee coach Kevin O'Neill the following season and Russ Pennell in 2008-09 before Miller arrived the next year.

Through the four and a half seasons that have followed, Arizona has gone 112-43, including an Elite Eight loss to eventual national champ Connecticut in 2011.

But none of those teams was remotely as good as this one, which somehow stands only sixth in the latest RPI rankings despite having posted road wins at Michigan, San Diego State and UCLA, plus a neutral-court triumph over Duke in the final of the Preseason NIT.

"Good teams don't let you make that next play," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said after a 69-60 loss to the Wildcats. "We cut it to four, but they wouldn't let us make the next play. They're very good. They're big and long and they change shots and they're athletic. They can move their feet."

The Wildcats' defense has become so good that they're fourth nationally in scoring defense (56 ppg allowed), seventh in field-goal defense (37.1 percent) and seventh in scoring margin (19.1 ppg).

After he and his teammates missed their first 16 shots against the Wildcats a couple of weeks ago in a wretched 60-25 defeat, Washington State's Royce Woolridge said of that defense, "It's just really hard to score on them. They're big in the paint ... and they're so active."

The biggest of those is the superb 6-foot-9 freshman Aaron Gordon, who is averaging 12.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and a block a game. But the best may be junior Nick Johnson, who leads Arizona in scoring (16.3) while hitting 82 percent of his free throws.

Yet it's junior point guard T.J. McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, who may prove the difference in the school winning its second national championship, in part due to his 6.2 assists and 1.8 steals a game and in part due to his attitude.

"It feels great to know we got the record," McConnell said late Sunday. "But we have to move on because we have another game on Thursday."

For opponents, moving against them has become a regular problem.

"Best defensive team I've seen in a long time," Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy, a former manager under Lute Olson at Arizona, said after a 77-44 loss. "Defensively, they're better than any team when I was here. Their length -- they guard pick and rolls, motion and they limit you to one shot."

That's been a pretty good recipe for reaching the Final Four, and quite possibly winning two games there.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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