TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — No. 8 Arizona rolled through the opening part of its schedule before facing a bit of adversity this week against Southern Miss.
And the schedule is about to get tougher: a road game against Clemson on Saturday followed by No. 6 Florida a week later at the McKale Center.
This bump in competition couldn’t have come at a better time for Wildcats coach Sean Miller. With a team that relies on freshmen at key positions, Miller likes the idea of building up their confidence before throwing them into the ring against heavyweights.
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“I think we’ll learn a lot about our team in the next two games,” Miller said. “I don’t think it’s the defining moment of our season, but I do think we’ll have a team that will be ready for both.”
The Wildcats have been ready for whatever opponents have thrown at them so far this season.
Living up to the hype of a team that has a talented group of veterans and another stellar recruiting class by Miller, Arizona (6-0) raced through the first five games of its schedule, scoring 85 points per game while winning by an average of 25 points.
The Wildcats faced their first test against Southern Miss on Tuesday night at McKale Center. Struggling against the Golden Eagles’ shifting zone, Arizona sped up on offense and spent most of the night throwing passes that got picked off or sailed out of bounds.
The Wildcats finished with 27 turnovers, doubling their season average, but pulled out a 63-55 win behind their defense, which prevented Southern Miss from making any of its eight 3-point attempts while forcing 17 turnovers in the second half.
It was ugly, but it was a win that could provide a lesson Arizona’s young players can look back on when things get tough later in the season.
“This allows us to have a little more confidence if we’re in a game situation like this in the future,” freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski. “It just puts that under our belt.”
The game against Southern Miss also was an example of why Arizona is so dangerous.
Miller’s latest recruiting class included three of the best incoming big men in the country: Tarczewski, a 7-foot center, 6-10 forward Grant Jarrett and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley. They’ve played well at times early in the season and should get better as the season progresses.
But the key to Arizona’s success lies in its veteran leadership. When the Wildcats had a hard time shaking Georgia Southern in their season opener, Miller stuck almost exclusively with his veteran players down the stretch.
Same thing against Southern Miss. With the ball flying all over the court and the game a little too close for comfort, Miller turned to his older guys down the stretch to pull Arizona through.
Guard Nick Johnson, a confident and heady sophomore, led the charge at the top of Arizona’s defense and finished with 23 points in 37 minutes.
Senior Kevin Parrom came off the bench in the first half but started the second and played 30 minutes overall. He scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half and used his passing ability to give the Wildcats a much-needed release valve at the center of Southern Miss’ zone.
Senior Solomon Hill hit the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer in front of Arizona’s bench with just under 2 minutes left, and again filled up the stat sheet.
The talented freshmen have a chance to be something special, but Miller can always count on his veteran players, three of whom — the seniors and junior point guard Jordin Mayes — reached the regional final of the NCAA tournament two years ago.
“As you guys have asked about this year’s team, the gift isn’t just our size or our youth and talent, it’s also that a lot of different players have been through a lot,” Miller said.
And there’s plenty more for the Wildcats to go through, starting Saturday.
Clemson is young but athletic and should be the toughest defensive team Arizona has faced so far. After that, the Wildcats host a marquee matchup in the desert the following Saturday against the Gators, who beat them in overtime a year ago in Gainesville.
That two-game stretch will be a tough test, but the Wildcats should be ready after backing up all those easy early-season wins with the gut-check victory over Southern Miss.
“To be 6-0 matters to our team,” Miller said. “You may say, ‘Of course it matters,’ but you would be surprised how sometimes, when things don’t go well for you, it’s not about the 6-0 — it’s about you. I like that collective thinking with our team.”
It’s worked so far. Now it’s time for the Wildcats to see if they can keep it going against stiffer competition.