TUCSON, Ariz. — Maybe No. 6 Arizona just needed a warm-up game.
“Our team was ready to play,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after the Wildcats easily defeated Long Beach State, 91-57, in McKale Center on Monday night. “We improved from game one to game two in a number of different areas.”
Miller, now in his fifth year as the head coach, said he could go in a number of different directions in his analysis.
Forward might be the best place to start … fast forward to be more accurate. Arizona was 4G to Long Beach’s 3G and clearly too fast and frenetic for the 49ers.
It started with Arizona’s defense and ended — or usually ended — with a dunk or fast break.
“As a team we talked about our identity and that’s a strong defensive team; we want to be a top defensive team in the country,” said Arizona leader Nick Johnson, who had four dunks en route to a 14-point night. “Getting on the break (is key). When we really push the ball we have people that can finish on the break. That’s definitely going to be one of our strong points this year. We have to work on it a bit. We had a few turnovers, but it’s one of our strong points.”
It showed. Game 2 of a 30-plus game schedule turned into a McKale Fiesta.
Game 1, a 73-62 win against Cal Poly, must have been Arizona’s siesta. The two games were night and day compared to each other. Arizona sputtered to a win in the debut. That wasn’t the case on Monday. The game was over early with Arizona going up 33-13 on, you guessed it, a dunk by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
“We will have our ups and downs and face adversity, but if we all stick together that’s something we can accomplish (in) playing that well,” said Brandon Ashley, referring to the team playing like a top five team. Ashley led the Wildcats with 16 points before fouling out.
Monday night, Arizona turned the party into a dunkfest. If it wasn’t Aaron Gordon or Johnson finishing on an alley-oop slam it was Hollis-Jefferson with a monster jam. Arizona hammered home just how good it can be.
“We were focusing on stopping Arizona’s fast breaks,” Long Beach State guard Mike Caffey said. “They got a couple of fast break points and that got them going, they made a couple of shots. So after that, they just kept rolling. We made them get a little too comfortable and that’s what popped our defense.”
It popped often. Arizona shot 58.6 percent, hitting 34 points on dunks and/or layups alone.
Said Long Beach State coach Don Monson: “We were dominated in every phase of the game.”
Figure that the 49ers hit just 17 shots — Arizona made its 17th basket with 1:22 left in the first half — and was down 14-4 on what was one of Gabe York’s four 3-pointers. York finished with 14 points and had six assists and no turnovers.
“It’s obvious he’s a much improved player,” Miller said. “He’s worked extremely hard from last year. When he comes in the game, he does a really good job. The fact that he had six assists and no turnovers, that stat is every bit as remarkable as the way he shot the ball. He’s a pivotal part of us moving forward.”
There’s that word again.
So what’s ahead? Arizona faces San Diego State on Thursday as part of its five games in 12 days whirlwind.
“I don’t think we will play a more difficult game all year long than we will play on Thursday,” Miller said. “Look at the success they have, team they have, coaching staff, and the crowd.”
All Miller had to do is remind everyone the last time Arizona went to play the Aztecs it wasn’t pretty, losing 63-46. It may not have been that close.
“That was one of the biggest wake-up calls I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Miller said. “I felt like we were going to lose by 50 points. It was men against boys.”
Miller added he’ll find out how his young team will handle the pressure, saying he has talked “a lot about preparing for this game.”
Miller said it helps that his team — albeit in an informal scrimmage against St. Mary’s — has been on the road. Now, it’s just with an audience.
“As competitors we’re expecting to win all five games,” said Ashley. “… We’ll compete and see what happens.”
If it looks like Monday, Arizona should compete. But then again the Aztecs aren’t the 49ers, a team that was outmanned, outmuscled, and well, outplayed. Arizona had a 45-29 rebounding advantage and limited LBS to just 27 percent shooting.
How good was Arizona? Much different from its season debut last week. UA senior Kaleb Tarczewski picked up his first rebound with 90 seconds into the game compared to having, well, none in the first game.
The biggest question of the night may have been: is York going to miss? He did, but not until the second half after going 4 for 4 from the floor in the first half.
“I’m excited what he can bring to the table,” Miller said. “It’s great to see him play with the type of confidence he’s playing with.”