Whether it was the derisive (and simply incorrect) way pregame analyst Dan Dakich called TJ McConnell “a homeless man’s Aaron Craft,” Dick Vitale’s confusion between Damon and Salim Stoudamire, or the incorrect second half graphic that ESPN displayed when Arizona regained the lead, the Wildcats simply weren’t getting much respect before and even during last night’s game versus Duke at Madison Square Garden.
But they are now.
After the Wildcats rode a balanced team effort to a 72-66 win over Duke in the championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off, the nation has taken notice that the Wildcats are among the biggest contenders for the national title.
You know what I say? About damn time.
Arizona has now gone into a hostile road environment against a revenge-motivated SDSU team, and beaten a top 10 with arguably the country’s best individual player on a neutral court in the spotlight of basketball’s biggest stage. And that was just November.
More impressive than the early season body of work, though, is that the Wildcats have risen to contender status through a different formula than most of college basketball’s elite teams. While teams like Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke ride the ups and downs of talented freshmen superstars, Arizona has been steady behind a balanced blend of young and veteran talent.
While some teams are trying (with varying degrees of success) to win with a star player or two, Arizona has climbed the rankings through unselfish team play. The Wildcats may not always have the highest scorer in the game, but they boast the most talented rotation, one through seven, in the entire country. And with so many interchangeable parts, that makes Arizona tougher to guard than a team with a clear offensive focal point.
That’s what makes this team so refreshing to watch. It’s obvious when a team has bought in to the group concept and play for one another, not for individual glory. Sean Miller calls that “honoring the process.”
Arizona grabbed national headlines among various media outlets all weekend, and all of them have praised the Wildcat’s balance, size, and team play. Many are also pointing to the Wildcats as the runaway conference favorites despite strong showings from top 25 teams Oregon and UCLA. And last but not least, the Cats are going to be a lot of people’s sexy pick for National Champion.
And while it’s fun to have the hype, it’s really all meaningless at this point in the season. Being top 10 or top 5 or top anything doesn’t matter in December, only in March. But if the Cats continue playing their selfless brand of basketball, they are going to be tough to beat in non-conference play and beyond.