Wildcats thrust themselves into Pac-10 race
As non-conference play wound down, Arizona appeared headed for its most dismal season in a quarter century.
The Wildcats narrowly escaped an upset by Lipscomb, then absorbed a 99-69 whipping by Brigham Young, the worst loss in McKale Center history.
One month later, the Wildcats (10-9, 4-3 Pac-10) are in a five-way tie for second place in the Pac-10, one game behind California, which comes to McKale Center on Sunday afternoon.
``We're growing up,'' senior point guard Nic Wise said.
But the youthful Wildcats aren't quite a finished product. Arizona's 77-58 rout of Arizona State last weekend in Tempe gave the Wildcats back-to-back victories for only the third time this year - and they have yet to win three straight.
``Are we a team that's getting better? Yes,'' coach Sean Miller said at McKale Center before practice on Tuesday. ``We have come a long way since the end of November, early December. I know a lot of other teams have. But we're playing our best basketball right now.''
The Wildcats will go for their third straight victory on Thursday night against Stanford (10-9, 4-3), which is in the clump of teams tied for second place. The Cardinal are 0-6 on the road this year.
Cal visits on Sunday, and a sweep of the Bay Area schools would leave the Wildcats no worse than tied for first as the Pac-10 race hits the backstretch.
The seeds of Arizona's improvement may have been planted in a brutal nonconference schedule.
The Sagarin Ratings rank Arizona's schedule as the second-toughest in the country, behind only East Carolina's. By contrast, rival Arizona State played the 142nd-toughest schedule, according to the Sagarin Ratings.
Arizona also played 10 of its first 19 games away from home.
Wise said the lessons learned in the autumn have paid dividends in road victories over USC, Oregon and Arizona State.
``Our schedule out of conference was No. 2 in the country, so we know we've played the caliber of teams that propelled us to get better and better and have a chance to win this Pac-10,'' Wise said. ``It would have hurt us if we would have come out and played 10, you know, teams that aren't very good. I'm not going to say any names, but teams that are automatic wins.''
As a first-year coach with only two upperclassmen on his roster, Miller probably would have preferred a softer schedule. But he said the schedule ``has really allowed us to see ourselves as we really are.''
Miller cited a number of factors in Arizona's growth - improved team defense, balanced scoring (Arizona has four players averaging double figures), the emergence of sophomore guard Kyle Fogg and the improvement of junior forward Jamelle Horne.
Fogg scored a game-high 21 points as the Wildcats dismantled Arizona State's feared zone defense. The Sun Devils had been allowing only 54.68 points per game, fewest in the nation, but Arizona scored 52 in the second half alone.
The 6-foot-3 Fogg is Arizona's best long-range shooter, averaging 47.2 percent from 3-point range.
The 6-foot-7 Horne can be frustratingly erratic; he shoots better from beyond the arc (45.6 percent) than the free-throw line (44.4 percent), and he's an indifferent rebounder.
Against ASU, Horne was benched after five lackluster first-half minutes. But after the coaches got on him, Horne responded with 11 points, three rebounds, a block and a steal in 17 high-energy minutes in the second half.
``It's a big step for Jamelle to not have a very good first half and have such a big impression on the second half,'' Miller said. ``That's hard to do, and it's one of maybe those breakthrough moments in his career that he can look back on and say, 'I put to rest the bad half and really helped my team play a great second half in a hostile environment.' ``
Even with their recent improvement, the Wildcats have lots of work to do to nail down their 26th straight NCAA tournament berth. Arizona's 25-year streak of NCAA appearances is the nation's longest and two shy of North Carolina's record run from 1975 to 2001.
The Wildcats play seven of their last 11 games in McKale Center. The aging fortress isn't as impregnable as it once was - Arizona has lost three home games already this season, matching its total from December 1995 to December 1999 - but it gives the Wildcats a reason for optimism heading into the stretch.
``We have a great opportunity,'' Miller said. ``I think that's very obvious.
``Can we take advantage of it is the question,'' Miller said.