TUCSON, Ariz. — They Arizona hype machine might need to be turned down a notch.
Whether it was first-game jitters, unfamiliar lineups or any number of other things, for moments Friday night in the season opener at McKale Center, No. 5 Arizona looked a bit out of sorts against visiting Cal Poly.
It got dicey for Sean Miller & Co., with Miller saying it was the type of first game that could have gone either way.
But it went the right way for Arizona, which held on for a 73-62 win to open what may around the program are expecting to be the best year yet under Miller. And remember that he’s already taken the program to an Elite Eight (2011) and a Sweet 16 (2013).
It’s a long season, and Friday night was a good reminder of that.
“Our upside is significant,” Miller said, “but we have so many players in new roles that you can’t expect us to be a great team right now. We’re far from it. We have to work to become it. Hopefully, health will be on our side. Down the road, I do feel you will see a much better team than you saw.”
Arizona is already beset by injuries. Big man Kaleb Tarczewski didn’t start after suffering a hip injury earlier in the week. Miller didn’t like how the 7-footer warmed up, so Gabe York was told 30 minutes before the game he’d be starting. Freshman sensation Aaron Gordon continues to be slowed by a strained groin, and reserve guard Elliott Pitts is out with an injured wrist.
But behind Gordon’s double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, the Wildcats pulled away from the Mustangs in the second half. The freshman was one of six Arizona players in double figures along with York (12), Brandon Ashley, Tarczewski and Nick Johnson (11 each) and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (10).
“Arizona has such an explosive offense, and we did a poor job of getting in the right position to exploit them,” Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said.
Speaking of explosive, all eyes in this one were on Gordon, who many think will be a one-and-done player given the speculation that he’ll be a top-10 pick in next year’s draft. And he garnered attention early in his debut, scoring on a tip-in and following that with a 3-pointer to give Arizona an 11-4 lead.
A 3-pointer? This from a guy who has been criticized for having a questionable shot?
“I came to Arizona for a reason: to help my jump shot,” Gordon said with a bit of a smirk. “That’s what I’m going to work on, and it feels good right now.
“If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it. There was a point where I wasn’t taking the best shots, but percentages go up when you take the right shots. I’ll take the opportunity when it presents itself and knock it down.”
Arizona did that well enough from the floor, hitting 24 of 42 shots, but was a surprisingly poor 20 of 36 from the free-throw line.
“A lot of unexpected things can happen,” Miller said. “The exciting thing about our team is that we only get better as we keep moving on. We’re not as bad a free-throw shooting team as we showed.”
Gordon, who was 2 of 6 from the line, said that it was just one of those nights at the free-throw line and that he liked how he played. He did admit to being nervous when he first took the court but said it all went away during warmups.
“What I kept telling myself to keep the nerves out was, ‘Basketball is basketball is basketball is basketball,” Gordon said. “No matter at what level you are at or the place you play, basketball will always be the same game. That got my nerves down.”
York, a sophomore, also said he went in confident, figuring that last year’s lack of playing time (5.8 minutes a game) is now in the distant past, although he too admitted to some jitters.
“Like Aaron said, but I’m not going to say all four basketballs like him, but basketball is basketball,” he said, drawing laughter.
For some time, it was hardly a laughing matter. Arizona didn’t have a double-digit lead until 9:47 left in the game, struggling to hit free throws and get into a groove most of the night. And Cal Poly stayed in it by going 11 for 26 from the 3-point line.
“I thought maybe we let them get too many 3-point shots,” said Ashley. “We didn’t play our best perimeter defense at times, but we pressured up and got into them (in the end).”
In the first five minutes, it appeared the Wildcats would run away with it thanks to Gordon, who followed his 3-pointer with a dunk to make it 13-7.
“I think it re-established the fact that I can play this game,” Gordon said. “The team supported me and has complete faith in me. From that point on, it was play as hard as I can. I’m an effort player.”
It did take a while for Arizona, though. Cal Poly went 6 for 12 from 3-point range in the first half, including three consecutive treys to take a 19-17 lead with 12:20 left in the half.
The Wildcats also missed 10 free throws in the first half, which allowed the Mustangs to stay within three at 37-34 at the half before Arizona pulled away down the stretch.
“To be up by three at halftime and going 8 for 18, missing two front ends of a 1-and-1, it’s hard to be up three against Cal Poly,” Miller said. “Cal Poly is a very good team. I feel good about leaving here with a victory, because (Cal Poly) was very worthy.”