Claremont’s Tarczewski, No. 1 Wildcats Ruling Pac-12
Tucson, Ariz. — Arizona ran through its 2012-13 non-conference season undefeated, only to stumble once Pac-12 play started.
The Wildcats won all 13 of their non-conference games this season, but have yet to suffer a letdown.
If anything, they may be getting better as the season goes along, which could be bad news for the rest of the teams in the Pac-12.
“I feel we have a confident team, but in a good way,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “A lot of players who were part of a big winning streak last year saw how quickly it can leave you if you don’t continue to work hard and get better. I believe the mission of this year’s team is to try to be a team that really practices and shows up. Leave one game behind and quickly move to the next. So far, so good.”
So far, Arizona (18-0, 5-0 Pac-12) has been superb.
Long, athletic and versatile, the Wildcats are one of the nation’s best defensive teams, ranking among the top 15 in scoring, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting.
Arizona has a plethora of scoring options, with a tough-to-stop combination of players who can score at the rim, off the dribble and from the perimeter.
The Wildcats also like being the team everyone wants to beat.
Since moving atop The Associated Press poll six weeks ago, Arizona has embraced being No. 1, using the perch as dare-you-to-knock-us-off motivation.
“This is our dream; we’re living our dream right now,” junior guard Nick Johnson said. “Being the No. 1 team in the country and having a target on our backs, it’s a challenge we love, and we have to keep working to get better.”
Arizona has done a pretty good job of that already.
Since finishing off a 27-game non-conference winning streak with a rout of Northern Arizona on Dec. 23, the Wildcats have been unstoppable in the Pac-12.
Arizona opened with a record-setting win over Washington State, setting McKale Center records for fewest points allowed (25), fewest field goals (nine) and shooting percentage (20).
The Wildcats earned a hard-fought win over Washington, then pulled out a tough road win over UCLA and blew past Southern California.
Arizona’s latest victory may have been its best.
Facing their biggest rivals, the Wildcats jumped on Arizona State almost from the opening tip, racing out to a 21-point lead in the first half and cruising to a 91-68 victory.
Arizona showed off its offensive versatility by placing seven players in double figures for the first time since 2004 and held the Sun Devils to a season-low 34 percent shooting.
“They’re a great team,” said Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski, who missed all three of his shots and scored three points against Arizona’s athletic front line. “It’s a tough loss and I hate to lose to them. They’re just a really good team with great size. There’s a reason Arizona is No. 1.”
Arizona has the makeup to stay there for a while, too.
On the physical side, the Wildcats are big, athletic and versatile.
Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona’s 7-foot center from Claremont, N.H., has made huge strides on both ends of the court and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley has become a nightmare matchup by becoming a better perimeter shooter.
Johnson has developed into one of the nation’s most explosive shooting guards and Gabe York has become Arizona’s go-to outside shooter. T.J. McConnell, who sat out last season after transferring from Duquesne, has been the perfect orchestrator with his pass-first mentality and ability to jump into passing lanes for steals.
Freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also have been big contributors, particularly on the defensive end, where they play with an intelligence and ability beyond their years.
Tying it all together is a lunch-pail mentality.
The Wildcats are the nation’s No. 1 team, but work like a team that’s still trying to get there. Johnson and McConnell have been the unquestioned leaders, but Arizona also has benefited from the maturity of Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, who have taken nothing for granted despite coming in as heralded recruits.
“One of the many things this team has done well is at times like this we’ve tried to stay focused on the process,” Miller said.
“Everything behind us is behind us, whether we won or lost. It’s a matter of how much better can we get in this week off leading to Colorado. It’s something we talked a lot about and our team has been responsible doing it.”
As Miller said, it’s been working so far.