No. 7 Wildcats find their stride again as season heats up

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) A loss to UNLV put a dent in Arizona’s national reputation. A loss to Oregon State, another unranked opponent, dropped the Wildcats from the ranks of Final Four favorites.

Public opinion fluctuates on a minute-by-minute basis these days, but it was pretty clear the Wildcats were in a bit of a funk.

That could change after Saturday’s blowout of Utah.

Showing off its depth, athleticism and big-game prowess, new No. 7 Arizona turned the Top-10 showdown into a rout, overwhelming the Utes with the kind of performance that leaves no doubt the Wildcats are still one of the nation’s elite programs.

”We knew this was a big game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. ”A team like that brought out the best in us, which is always a great sign.”

The 18-point victory could turn the Wildcats into a nightmare for the rest of the season.

Arizona was the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 and a popular Final Four preseason pick. The Wildcats did little to sway opinion by winning their first 12 games, including a victory over San Diego State to win the Maui Invitational and a home victory over Gonzaga. That success came despite issues, with free throw and perimeter shooting, defensive breakdowns and rebounding lapses.

Arizona took a step back in its loss to UNLV on Dec. 23 when the Running Rebels exposed the Wildcats’ defensive problems by going right at them. Oregon State did the same thing last week and outworked Arizona on the glass in an upset victory.

The Wildcats responded with a victory over Colorado on Thursday, though that came against an undermanned team; two of the Buffaloes’ top three scorers were out.

Miller said his team would be underdogs at home against Utah, which had risen to No. 8 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll thanks to stifling defense and an eye-popping 24.5-point margin of victory in conference games.

The Pac-12’s first game between top 10 teams – Arizona at No. 10 and Utah with its highest ranking in nearly 16 years – quickly became a rout as the Wildcats (16-2, 4-1) dominated Utah at both ends.

Point guard T.J. McConnell carried Arizona in the first half, freshman Stanley Johnson took over in the second and Arizona ran away with a 69-51 victory that reiterated what the Utes knew all along: Arizona is the team to beat in the Pac-12.

”I’m listening to Sean Miller talk about how he has to upset us. It’s like you’re in the middle of a dream,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.

Playing with the mindset of underdogs even if they weren’t – Vegas had Arizona as the favorite – it may have been the Wildcats’ best game of the season just as the Pac-12 race is heating up.

Arizona shot 49 percent against one of the nation’s toughest defensive teams. The Wildcats had 21 more rebounds, including 17 on the offensive glass that led to 18 second-chance points, against a team that had been the Pac-12’s best rebounding team.

Arizona also closed in around Delon Wright, holding Utah’s dynamic scorer to three points after an initial seven-point flurry. The Utes dropped to No. 12 Monday.

”We’ve been the hunted for two-and-a-half years,” Miller said. ”Every loss we’ve had in two years on the road, the court has been stormed. We have to, as a coach and staff, be aware that can’t be a burden.

”Recently, it started to feel that way, where if you win you are relieved, and if you lose, it’s like, `Can you believe we lost?’ and `We stink.”’

The Wildcats certainly don’t stink. The win over Utah proved just the opposite.