Unbeaten Wildcats brace for tough stretch away from home
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona basketball players know home is where the heart is. The road? Well, you play at your own risk.
So far, the risk-reward thing has worked out fine for the top-ranked Wildcats, but they’re about to be put to the test as they head to the Bay Area for what should be difficult back-to-back road games with Stanford on Wednesday night and California on Saturday.
The dynamics of Arizona’s trip? "You have two really hungry teams," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
At 13-6 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-12 Conference, Stanford is looking for a chance to solidify its credentials and impress the NCAA selection committee. Cal (14-6, 5-2) has grander aspirations; the Bears remain in the hunt to win the Pac-12 Conference title.
"We’re looking forward to playing two talented teams and for two competitive games," UA sophomore forward Brandon Ashley said.
Here’s some perspective: Arizona has won five its first six road games by an average of just five points — in essence, two possessions. The lone exception: A 20-point win over USC.
"A couple of games could have gone either way," Miller said this week. "We’re fortunate to be on the positive end of it. We’ll take it.
"Our team has been really good at being locked in … and moving forward."
The scares aren’t limited to the road. The Wildcats have also survived some tough tests at home, where they are 14-0.
"As a team we like the feeling of us versus everyone else out there," said junior guard T.J. McConnell. "We embrace that. We have to keep playing like we have."
As Miller noted: "Going 20-0 is hard." But it’s expected to get even more difficult with a back-loaded schedule that features seven of the next 11 games on the road. First up is Stanford at Maples Pavilion, a venue that has always been difficult for Arizona.
"They better not sleep on Stanford," California coach Mike Montgomery said. "Stanford is playing good, and they are a good basketball team."
The Cardinal are coming off a split on the road against UCLA and USC and have won four of its last five. They swept the Washington schools in their most recent home games.
"I’ve been here when it can get so loud and the fans can get so involved," said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins. "You want that. … We’ve had that off and on and had our moments."
Wednesday could be one of those moments. The Wildcats tend to stir the juices.
"I’d think it would be a terrific crowd with the No. 1 team coming in," said Dawkins, adding that Arizona is the best team he’s seen in the conference since becoming Stanford’s coach in 2008.
Arizona has been up to the challenge thus far, with credentials that include gut-check victories at UCLA and Michigan.
"If you can win at Michigan you can when anywhere," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.
"Anywhere" also includes San Diego State, where the Wildcats posted an early season victory over a team that is now 18-1 and ranked No. 5.
"Not a lot of people recognized how good they were," Miller said. "You kind of sensed it when we were there."
All have prepared Arizona for what’s ahead — or at least they hope so.
"We have answered the bell across the board, and it’s brought out the best in our team when we’ve been away from home," said Miller, adding that to lose on the road wouldn’t necessarily mean they didn’t play well.
"For us, it’s about our performance and be the best we can be. Our goal is not so much to go undefeated but it’s to compete for that Pac-12 championship. One day at a time."
And that means staying true to what’s gotten them here: Unselfishness and team defense. Those traits generally travel well, but not always.
"Playing defense isn’t nearly as easy (on the road)," Miller said. "You have everything working against you. You have to play even harder on the road defensively. It’s a great challenge. Can our defense hold steady?"