TUCSON, Ariz. — Sean Miller said there was no grand plan or blueprint for being No. 1 at Arizona.
It was and is about survival and succeeding. Well, he’s done both in returning Arizona (9-0) to a height it hasn’t seen in more than 10 seasons.
“My five-year plan was to just be here as a coach,” said Miller, half-smiling. “It’s hard. It could very easily not have worked. We need good fortune, and we’ve had a lot of good players come through here.”
From one of Miller’s first Arizona recruits in Derrick Williams to freshman Aaron Gordon, the Wildcats have gone from rebuilding to well-built. How it sustains its status will soon be seen in the coming weeks. Only the 2003 and 1988 Arizona teams have held onto the top ranking for more than three consecutive weeks. The 2003 team did it for six consecutive weeks and then five; the 1988 team did it for four.
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“He’s done a great job,” said Nick Johnson of Miller’s rebuilding process. “It’s no secret that this year our goal is to be playing in Dallas (for the Final Four). This just starts it off. It gives us that confidence to continue on with our season, to keep it rolling.”
Taking an opponent’s best shot is commonplace at Arizona. It’s been the rule rather than the exception for much of the last 30 years. so that won’t be anything new, but Johnson said the No. 1 ranking does bring a smidge of “added pressure. We’ve been chasing this spot and we’re finally here. And we want to stay here.”
This week will bring two different kinds of test.
On Wednesday, New Mexico State (7-4) comes to Tucson with 7-foot-5 Sim Bhuller, who Miller said may be the biggest player to have come into McKale Center in its 40-year history. He has 122 career blocked shots, setting a school record for blocks in a game with 10 last month.
“He’s 7-foot-5 and all of it,” said Arizona’s Brandon Ashley, who has played against Bhuller on the AAU circuit. “He’s big and talented. It’s definitely going to be a fun matchup. Positioning is going to be important.”
Ashley said Bhuller takes up a lot of space, and when the Wildcats attack the baske,t they have to be aware that he’s there.
“He’s got really good hands and is a really good passer,” Miller said. “He has a skill level to him that’s scary. We have to make sure we are prepared for a guy like him.”
New Mexico State is on a three-game losing streak, but the losses were against quality opposition (Colorado State, New Mexico, Gonzaga). The Aggies are frequent NCAA tournament contenders and not an easy mark. Two seasons ago, Arizona went to Las Cruces and struggled a bit before winning 83-76.
“You can make an argument when you just look at their numbers that they are a better team than UNLV,” Miller said, referring to a team the Wildcats struggled to beat 63-58 on Saturday. “I watched them play Gonzaga (and) I watched them play New Mexico and they were right there for both games. From an athletic perspective, they will be ready to go. We have to be ready.”
It will be no different Saturday when the Wildcats play at Michigan.
“It’s going to be big for us,” Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas was quoted on MLive.com. “As far as our confidence goes, beating the No. 1 team in the country would be big for us. I think we’re going to be ready for it. We’re going to be pumped for it. Our fans are going to be pumped up for it. We’re ready.”
Miller said he’s satisfied with how his team is reacting to the No. 1 ranking. He senses that they’ve stayed level-headed and focused.
“This is a group that is grounded and knows it has to get better,” he said.