Arizona feels no pressure with No. 1 ranking in reach

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona has been here before. Plenty of times, in fact. Whether the Wildcats were on the verge of becoming No. 1 in the country or trying to hold on to that ranking, they know — as a program — what it takes to get there and stay there for as long as possible.

And Arizona (8-0) will have another opportunity to claim that top spot when UNLV (3-3) visits Saturday afternoon. With top-ranked Michigan State losing to unranked North Carolina on Wednesday, the top of the polls is there for the taking, and the second-ranked Wildcats are first in line.

“You try not to look into the rankings … it’s not something we look at,” Arizona sophomore sensation Brandon Ashley said. “We just focus on who is next and teams down the road.”

Arizona coach Sean Miller has embraced the possibility of becoming No. 1. And why not, he said, calling it “rarified air.” Most coaches and teams will shy away from that talk, but not Arizona, a program that has been ranked No. 1 a total of 29 times in its celebrated basketball history. The last was in March 2003.

So far, the Wildcats have played like they deserve it, save for a poor first half in a closer-than-expected win over Drexel. That means that for 15 1/2 of 16 halves, Arizona has looked the part of a national title contender behind its three former McDonald’s All-Americans in Ashley, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, its 7-foot center in Kaleb Tarczewski, its new-yet-veteran point guard in T.J. McConnell and its leader in rock-solid junior guard Nick Johnson. And not to be forgotten are the few key contributors on a thin bench, specifically sharpshooter Gabe York, the aforementioned Hollis-Jefferson and five-minutes-per-game senior guard Jordin Mayes.

In the last 30 years, Arizona has started at least 8-0 five times, last year getting off to a torrid 14-0 start thanks in part to a favorable schedule. But the highest the Wildcats reached during that 2012 start was No. 3. And after the hype and hoopla had subsided, Arizona went 13-8 the rest of the way, eventually finishing as a Sweet 16 participant.

With that fresh in Tucson memories, it should be noted that a dominant start doesn’t necessarily equal a dominant team. Arizona has a long way to go to be considered among the program’s best. While this year’s group is talented and productive at every position, teams such as the 1997-98 outfit (Mike Bibby, Mike Dickerson and Miles Simon), the 1988 squad (Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Anthony Cook, et al) and the 2001 group (Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Michael Wright, Loren Woods, Luke Walton) would have a say in that discussion. Those teams alone spent a combined 12 weeks at No. 1, with the 1997 team never reaching the top — until it mattered.

So, one never knows. But being top dog — or top Cat, in this instance — does help in terms of confidence and recruiting, and Miller hinted to that after UA defeated Texas Tech 79-58 earlier in the week, saying: “To have a chance to be ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation is something all of us would feel really good about, for obvious reasons.”

Legendary former coach Lute Olson, who would know a thing or two about it, cited recruiting as the biggest benefactor of the enhanced visibility and prestige.

“It does help recruiting because the school, although it is widely known anyway, is at the top,” Olson said.

And besides that, it’s fun to be No. 1. Fans certainly love it, and the players apparently do, too.

“We embraced the No. 1 ranking,” said A.J. Bramlett, UA’s center on the 1997 national title team. “It is something I am still proud about. Arizona basketball never shied away from extremely high expectations under Coach (Olson), and Coach Miller has the same philosophy. Of course it brings pressure, but just having ‘Arizona’ on your chest brings pressure and everyone’s best shot.

“No. 1 is where AZ belongs, and the players, coaches and city should enjoy it. They deserve it. That being said, the only No. 1 ranking that matters will happen in April.”

Until then, it could be a very interesting ride.

Figure that in 1988, when Olson had arguably his best team, Arizona took over its first-ever No. 1 rankings after starting 12-0. Two weeks later, the Wildcats lost to Stanford, losing the top spot in the process. They eventually fell to Oklahoma in the school’s first Final Four.

In 1994, behind Damon Stoudamire and Joseph Blair — now both on the coaching staff, coincidentally — UA started 8-0 (eventually 12-1) but lost in the Final Four to Arkansas.

Two years later, Arizona again started 8-0 but eventually lost to Kansas in the Sweet 16.

Seven years after that, after going 5-0 to open the year and 15-1 before losing again, the 2003 team was ranked No. 1 for 13 weeks behind freshman Andre Iguodala, sophomore Channing Frye, sophomore Salim Stoudamire, freshman Hassan Adams, senior Luke Walton and senior Jason Gardner. A loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight ended the season for that young but memorable team.

This one has much the same makeup, but the memories are just beginning.

“It doesn’t seem like (being highly rated) will be demanding on this team,” Olson said. “The younger the team, the more you concern yourself with that. But I think this team is pretty confident in their ability. They seem to be playing better and better.

“I thought that it wouldn’t be so good for them to be ranked so high this early as young as they are — maybe January or February — but listening to the comments, they don’t feel any pressure. Their goal is to play better all the time.”

That’s always a goal, of course. But doesn’t the attention that comes with being No. 1 also come with added pressure?

“None, really,” said Olson. “Any time you are an Arizona or a Duke or a program like that, you always know you’re always going to get (an opponent’s best game).”

The only pressure Olson felt, he recalled, was when Arizona was on its 71-game home-court winning streak. It finally ended in 1992, when UCLA came in and won 89-87 on a last-second shot.

“That got a little more and more pressure-packed,” he said. “But being No. 1 wasn’t pressure.”