No. 1 Wildcats’ defense impresses
TUCSON, Ariz. — Jack Murphy has seen some No. 1 teams in his young day.
And, Arizona is a legit No. 1 team. Murphy should know after he witnessed a top-shelf beat down on Monday night at the hands of top-ranked Arizona. Murphy’s Northern Arizona Lumberjacks fell 77-44 in McKale Center.
For nearly 10 years, Murphy had a front row seat to a few No. 1 Arizona teams, the last before this year when he was a senior manager in 2003. Back then it was Luke Walton, Jason Gardner, Andre Iguodala, Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire in uniform.
This season, it’s Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and the rest.
"It’s the best defensive team I’ve seen in a long time," Murphy, 34, said shortly after Arizona ran its record to 13-0 before the Christmas holiday. "Defensively they are better than I’ve ever seen here at Arizona."
That would include the 2001 team that played in the NCAA title game and was as talent rich as it had ever been with the likes of Richard Jefferson, Loren Woods, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner and Michael Wright. Walton was the sixth man.
This year’s version extends and attacks — almost non-stop.
"(It’s) their length. They Arizona pick and rolls, motion and they limit you to one shot," Murphy said. "We got some boards in the second half but those (came from) crazy bounces. They defend."
Arizona coach Sean Miller’s assessment would be: yes, we do but not all the time. In fact, he said just that, lauding the first-half effort then down-grading it in the second half as "not up to standards."
"We’re good but we can get a lot better," said Arizona’s Nick Johnson, who led the Wildcats with 20 points. "I think right now we are a top 10 defensive team. That was one of our goals this year but as a team we know we can be a lot better."
That’s a word of warning to the rest of the teams left on the schedule, which, of course, means the Pac-12 Conference and, well, beyond. The conference season starts on Jan. 2 when Washington State visits McKale Center.
"We just have to get ready for this conference," Johnson said. "Last year we kind of stumbled a bit. We started pretty good in our nonconference (schedule), we just need to keep it up."
Monday night would be that perfect game to look back on and think: well done except for this and that. Miller did, saying Arizona was "excellent" in the first half in part because the Wildcats had just two turnovers and one was the last play at the half.
"That’s something that’s really exceptional," Miller said, adding the team had just five turnovers to end the game.
Miller then referred to his team’s defense, one that limited NAU to 36 percent from the floor in each half. In fact, because of Arizona’s defense, the Wildcats went on a 30-6 run to end the half after the teams were tied 11-11 with 12:14 left.
"The second half we weren’t nearly as good and nearly as together," Miller said. "We didn’t play with the same energy and effort. And we addressed it."
Johnson, again, was the difference with his 20 points. Gabe York came off the bench to have one of his better nights, finishing with 10 points, four assists and four steals.
"It feels like as long as I keep going hard things will go my way," York said. "I can’t be too happy about that because of the team we are playing but it does feel good that I’m working as hard as I can defensively and it showed. I gotta keep doing it throughout the whole season."
The whole team does … at least on the defensive end when it returns on Dec. 27 when it gets ready for what’s ahead. And what’s ahead is something it couldn’t quite handle last season — the conference schedule. After starting 12-0, Arizona went 15-8 the rest of the way, including 12-6 in the nonconference schedule. Miller said the team was a bit tired last year after its trip to Hawaii. And, there was another issue.
"When we got back we lost our defense," Miller said. "Our defense a year ago was very good but not as good as this year’s defense. But we went through a four-to-five week period where we didn’t play nearly tough enough defense to be the Pac-12 regular season champion."
Miller went on to say one of the things he learned was when a team goes south — he hinted team chemistry may have been the culprit in that a player or two may have been selfish — it shows up on defense.
"We dealt with a little bit of that," Miller said. "It wasn’t about being 12-0 (but) more about us as individuals. You could see effort, concentration and details (missing). When we resurged last year our chemistry came back in and our defense came back. That’s when we had a chance to get back to the Final Four."
It fell one game — one shot — short. This season, who knows what will happen?
Until then, Arizona will bask in the glory of being No. 1 at the end of the calendar year. And enjoy being the only team in Arizona history to go 14-0 and 13-0 in back-to-back seasons.
"That’s something we have a lot of pride in," Miller said. "We don’t look at it as a burden but a fantastic, great honor not only for this year’s team but for our fans and program."
Starting center Kaleb Tarczewski sat out his second game because of a sprained ankle. His return is likely to be the start of conference play.