TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)
No. 8 Arizona rolled through the opening part of its schedule before facing a bit of adversity this week against Southern Miss.
Now the schedule is about to get tougher: A road game against Clemson on Saturday and No. 6 Florida a week later at the McKale Center.
This bump in competition couldn't have come at a better time for Wildcats coach Sean Miller.
With a team that relies on freshmen at key positions, Miller likes the idea of building up their confidence before throwing them into the ring against heavyweights.
"I think we'll learn a lot about our team in the next two games," Miller said. "I don't think it's the defining moment of our season, but I do think we'll have a team that will be ready for both."
The Wildcats have been ready for whatever opponents throw at them so far this season.
Living up to the hype of a team that has a talented group of veterans and another stellar recruiting class by Miller, Arizona (6-0) raced through the first five games of its schedule, scoring 85.2 points per game while winning by an average of 24.6.
The Wildcats faced their first test against Southern Miss on Tuesday night at McKale Center.
Struggling against the Golden Eagles' shifting zone, Arizona sped up on offense and spent most of the night throwing passes that were easily picked off or sailed out of bounds.
The Wildcats finished with 27 turnovers, doubling their season average, but pulled out a 63-55 win behind their defense, which prevented Southern Miss from making any of its eight 3-point attempts while forcing 17 turnovers in the second half.
It was ugly, but it was a win that could be a lesson Arizona's young players can look back on when things get tough later in the season.
"This allows us to have a little more confidence if we're in a game situation like this in the future," freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski. "It just puts that under our belt."
The game against Southern Miss also was an example of why the Wildcats are so dangerous.
Miller's latest recruiting class included three of the best incoming big men in the country: Tarczewski, a 7-foot center, 6-10 forward Grant Jerrett and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley.
They've played well at times early in the season and should get better as the season progresses.
But the key to Arizona's success lies in its veteran leadership.
When the Wildcats had a hard time shaking Charleston Southern in their season opener, Miller stuck almost exclusively with his veteran players down the stretch.
Same thing against Southern Miss.
With the ball flying all over the court and the game a little too close for comfort, Miller turned to his older guys down the stretch to pull Arizona through.
Guard Nick Johnson, a confident and heady sophomore, led the defensive charge at the top of Arizona's defense and finished with 23 points in 37 minutes.
Senior Kevin Parrom came off the bench in the first half, but started the second and played 30 minutes. He scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half and used his passing ability to give the Wildcats a much-needed release valve at the center of Southern Miss' zone.
Senior Solomon Hill hit the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer in front of Arizona's bench with just under 2 minutes left, and again filled up the stat sheet.
The talented freshmen have a chance to be something special, but Miller can always count on his veteran players, three of whom - with junior point guard Jordin Mayes - reached the regional final of the NCAA tournament two years ago.
"As you guys have asked about this year's team, the gift isn't just our size or our youth and talent, it's also that a lot of different players have been through a lot," Miller said.
And there's plenty more for the Wildcats to go through, starting on Saturday at Clemson.
The Tigers (5-2) are young but athletic and should be the toughest defensive team Arizona has faced so far. Their opponents average 53.7 points, and they held South Carolina to 34.6 percent shooting in a 64-55 road victory Sunday.
While Clemson is slated to get starting forward Milton Jennings back following a two-game suspension, the team must adjust without starting guard T.J. Sapp, who announced this week that he will transfer.
"That situation was shocking to me, but we just have to move on," fellow sophomore K.J. McDaniels told Clemson's official website. "It's a part of this business. For him to make that decision, he's his own man. So that can't affect us, we have to keep moving on."
McDaniels is tied for the team lead with 11.9 points per game after scoring 16 against the Gamecocks. He and his teammates are excited to get another look at Arizona after the Tigers lost 63-47 in Tucson last season.
"It's an opportunity to see where we're at as a team," freshman Adonis Filer said.