TUCSON, Ariz. — New Mexico State tried slowing the pace on offense and used six different defenses, including a rarely used tandem-and-2.
All it proved to be was a minor speed bump for Arizona in its first game at No. 1.
The Aggies used their quirky mix of defenses to keep up early, but had no answer when Arizona figured out what they were doing in a 74-48 loss to the top-ranked Wildcats on Wednesday night.
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“We were trying to take away Arizona’s 3s, their easy layups and dunks,” Aggies center Tshilidzi Nephawe said. “Our defense just couldn’t keep up.”
Arizona (10-0) labored out of the gate in its first game in a decade at No. 1, unsure of what to do against New Mexico State’s unique defense.
Once the Wildcats figured it out, the rout was on.
Putting on a show for the home fans, Arizona turned a close game into a rout with an array of dunks, 3-pointers and a suffocating defense that made every shot a test for the Aggies.
Brandon Ashley showed off his improved perimeter shooting, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts while scoring 15 points. Kaleb Tarczewski didn’t back down from Sim Bhullar, the Aggies’ 7-foot-5 center, repeatedly finishing at the rim and making all five of his shots for 14 points.
T.J. McConnell had nine points and six assists while orchestrating Arizona’s offense, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provided a big lift with 12 points, eight rebounds and the one big dunk.
The Wildcats shot 52 percent, dominated the glass (38-22) and held their fifth opponent under 60 points to open 10-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time as a program.
“We just go out there and play like we’re playing a Duke every night,” McConnell said. “We wanted to be underdogs at No. 1 and just go out and play as we hard..”
New Mexico State (7-5) extended the shot clock on offense and threw everything at Arizona on defense, including the tandem-and-2 — three players in man-to-man, two in a zone in the middle of the lane — that briefly befuddled the Wildcats.
None of it worked against a bigger, more athletic team.
Daniel Mullings had 18 points to lead the Aggies, who made 2 of 11 from 3-point range and shot 33 percent to lose their fourth straight.
“We ran into a better team and they are No. 1 in the nation for a reason,” Aggies coach Marvin Menzies said. “I have to give credit when credit is due, but I think we didn’t play as well as we could have.”
Arizona reeled off an impressive list of victories during its opening nine-game winning streak, including at San Diego State, Duke at Madison Square Garden to win the NIT Season Tip-off and a grind-it-out win over UNLV last week.
With former No. 1 Michigan State’s loss to North Carolina last week, the Wildcats moved atop The Associated Press poll for the first time since 2003 and became the Pac-12’s first top-ranked team since UCLA in 2006.
They didn’t get much time to celebrate with two difficult opponents this week, including Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
Before Arizona hits the road, though, it had to deal with the Aggies and Bhullar, their paint-filling center.
Bhullar wasn’t much of a factor, but the Wildcats got off to a ragged start against New Mexico State’s defense, turning it over three times in the first 4 minutes while missing seven of their first nine shots.
Once the Wildcats figured out what the Aggies were doing, there was no stopping them.
Arizona led by eight points at halftime and extended the lead by making 17 of 29 shots in the second half while holding the Aggies to 5-of-21 shooting.
Nick Johnson punctuated the runaway with about 5 minutes left, throwing down a two-handed, 360 dunk on a breakaway to put Arizona up 67-45.
“Typically, we come out of the half every efficient, but that didn’t happen here,” Menzies said. “Their athleticism and size was a problem for us, on the wings especially.”