ANAHEIM, Calif. — San Diego State coach Steve Fisher had this to say about the job Sean Miller has done to this point in the season: "He’s done a masterful job."
Of course, he’d like that ride to end against his San Diego State Aztecs on Thursday night here at the Honda Center in the Sweet 16.
For Arizona, where better to continue its possibly glorious road to the Final Four than at the doorstep of Disneyland, where magical things happen?
It’s been that kind of ride so far for ther 30-4 Wildcats.
But even though Miller and his Cats had a magical start to the season, winning 21 consecutive games and staying atop the polls for a school record eight consecutive weeks, adjustments had to be made when sophomore forward Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending injury in early February.
Against his own stubborn instincts, Miller came to that conclusion — like it or not. The bench would have to play more. The lineup would have to go smaller, but deeper. Faster, quicker and more transition-oriented.
Change was good.
"They are one man down, but they are awfully, awfully good," said Fisher on the eve of playing the Wildcats. "With Gabe York out there playing more minutes you have a better shooting team, obviously. He stretches the floor (and) it opens things up for (Aaron) Gordon and dribble penetration. They are better than they were and better than when they played at our place.
"I think we are too."
The Wildcats defeated the Aztecs 69-60 in San Diego in November, the third of their 21 consecutive victories. But that was a lifetime ago for both teams.
It’s debatable and probably an unanswerable question as to whether Arizona is better without Ashley — there’s no question it would rather have him than not — but the Wildcats are clearly different and create a different set of complications for opponents.
Suffice to say they have moved on quite nicely without him.
"Our kids have responded to the adversity," said UA assistant coach Book Richardson. "We’ve banded tighter and now we are trying to win as many games for Brandon. Losing him was a huge blow because losing one of the best players in the country is tough. We’re still a work in progress."
They are 11-4 since the unavoidable transition, and admittedly, the change took some time. An ah-ha moment came when the Wildcats went to Tempe and lost in double overtime to Arizona State. Two days later, they were in a team meeting discussing the use of its bench after all the starters played 45 minutes or more.
"That was real important," said UA junior guard T.J. McConnell. "We talked, and I think it gave the guys coming off the bench more confidence in coming off the bench in giving us a break. We told them we’d need them. We’ve gone uphill from there."
That’s hard to argue. What was important was Miller recognized change was essential for the survival of the Arizona season.
"They’ve all done an excellent job," Miller said.
Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson got the first shot replacing Ashley in the starting lineup but has moved back to sixth man with the insertion of long-range shooter York to the lineup. Elliott Pitts, Matt Korcheck and Jordin Mayes have all had their moments off the bench, intermittently.
"I think he was going with the flow," York said of Miller’s change. "No one really expected Brandon to go down. And it was a big blow, but (Miller) has done a great job. It was a matter of us finding a way as a team."
Whether it was the team meeting or a matter of time, there’s no arguing Arizona is in a better place.
"Sometimes you have to play a couple of games to really get a true feel for what works and what doesn’t," Miller said. "We didn’t play our bench enough. We didn’t recognize the importance of spacing and having another shooter on the court (and) how that can make the other four guys better offensively. It was a lesson that we didn’t have to sacrifice much defensively."
It helps to have Hollis-Jefferson coming off the bench as an energetic sparkplug on both ends of the court.
"It was about fine tuning things," Hollis-Jefferson said, "finding the right place for the team to play at a consistent basis and getting us to jell and getting us to work together. He found that it was me coming off the bench and getting us to have that energy that I bring."
Ultimately, it was Miller who put the puzzle back together.
"He’s done a terrific job," Fisher said. "And everybody knows it. You get talented players (and) to get them to buy in with no agenda. Everybody says look at all those players and that any (coach) can win. But, it ain’t that easy. You have to know what you are doing."
And recognize, of course, that change can be a good thing.
Where: Honda Center, Anaheim
Arizona: When Arizona hits shots (as it did in beating Gonzaga), it looks unbeatable. But Gonzaga doesn’t play the defense San Diego State does. Nick Johnson has been the guy to bust zones and get through man-to-man defenses. He’s averaged 17.5 points per game in the NCAA tournament. He’s received plenty of help from the freshman duo of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who were stars of the show last weekend against Gonzaga. The Wildcats’ poor free-throw shooting this season hasn’t manifested itself in the tournament in that both games were never in doubt. They have hit 22 of 34 free throws, right at the team’s average of 65 percent. The key could be how junior guard McConnell handles the pressure that the Aztecs will present. The bet is he will.
San Diego State: San Diego State is led by Xavier Thames, a player Arizona coach Sean Miller said is one of the better guards in the country. He’s been the team’s leading scorer in two-thirds of the Aztecs’ games and is coming off a 30-point effort. He’s helped by Winston Shepard, a sophomore forward who is averaging 11.7 points per game. The defense is anchored by 6-foot-10 Skylar Spencer, who has 87 blocks (29 in the last 12 games). Transfer Josh Davis was a non-factor in the first meeting between the two teams in November, going 1 for 7. But he’s averaging 13.5 ppg game in the NCAAs. The Aztecs are talented and can play defense. Arizona has struggled with that combination this season.
Last call: Every game seems to be trouble for Arizona in that you wonder if they can shoot well from the perimeter. It clearly won’t be like last game where Gonzaga didn’t match up and was overwhelmed. This will be an athletic matchup between two gifted teams. If Wildcats can hit their shots they should move on. If they don’t, the road could be over here.