With all due respect to Arizona’s opponents, the first four games have felt more like a prolonged preseason than the start of college basketball. Perhaps it was the nine day break while other schools were in traditional season-opening tournaments, or the fact that Arizona hasn’t faced a marquee team yet, but the first few games of the year were more like the games in the Bahamas than the November basketball Wildcat fans are used to.
But now the fun starts.
Despite Arizona’s perfect record, a number of questions remain unanswered. In the last 30 days, Arizona won six games in McKale by an average of 29 points per game. Over the next 30 days, Arizona will play five games away from home and face the higher ranked Florida Gators on national television.
While November was an enjoyable time to root for the Wildcats, December will answer the important questions that diehard fans are asking. Arizona’s roster, full of potential and expectations, is about to face numerous tests. Their performance should tell fans just what kind of group Sean Miller has assembled for this season.
How will the Cats fare away from home?
No matter how talented freshmen may be, there’s no way to really prepare for your first college road game. How Arizona’s youth handles hostile fans, questionable calls, and slow starts will determine just how successful this team can be. It is easy to play through struggles in the warm confines of McKale. It is much tougher to be mentally strong when making mistakes on the road that get you pulled from a game.
While Texas Tech is the less heralded team, college basketball fans know that weird things happen away from home. And the Clemson game has all the makings of a trap, being right before the top ten showdown with Florida. Kentucky learned the hard way against Notre Dame that talent doesn’t always overcome experienced players with a home court advantage.
The youngsters will have to learn how to handle travel, missing class, and recovering quickly. They will have to endure their first finals week. They will have to balance school and basketball with time management. Learning these lessons now will be essential to a run at the Pac-12 title.
How will the Cats handle adversity?
Arizona was hardly tested during their four game winning streak. It’s easy to have fun and get playing time when you’re up 20. But as the Wildcats encounter difficult situations away from home, will they embrace the pressure or will they make mistakes? If Arizona falls behind early, will they have the determination to play their game and defend at the level necessary to come back? If Arizona happens to lose a game, how will they respond?
How will the Cats do in end game situations?
Arizona hasn’t faced a possession where they had to score. As opponents slow down the Wildcats, and when they have to have a basket, what will this team look like? Will they be able to execute the plays Miller draws up? Will Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons be able to create baskets when plays break down? Will the veterans lead the way by making timely baskets? Last year, Arizona was plagued by not having a go to scorer. The team lacked the trust and confidence that comes from having a player that can carry the weight of a game. This season, Arizona has the players that can, they just need to prove it.
Will the Cats be able to defend the three point line?
During Miller’s time at Arizona, three point defense has been a clear strength. But with Arizona’s newfound youth and size, they have been a bit slow rotating on perimeter shots. Will Arizona’s new lineup adjust and continue to learn the system? Will the bigs be able to close out on shooters? And when they do, will they have the discipline to not get beat with pump fakes? The three pointer is the great equalizer in the college game, and defending the perimeter will be essential to preventing underdogs from pulling off the upset.
How will the Cats improve?
In order to make a run at a Final Four, a team needs to improve each and every month of the season. As Arizona goes through the December schedule, what progress will they make as a team? The non-conference slate is about preparing for league play. Opponents are usually scheduled to simulate conference teams. Will the Cats be able to use what they learn in Decemberto be ready to go in January?
How will the Cats deal with opposing big men?
Arizona is about to see more height and talent in the post. Will the young front line be able to avoid foul trouble and stay disciplined against bigger, stronger opponents? Will crafty veterans be able to frustrate the freshmen with fundamentals and hustle? Or will Arizona’s seemingly endless depth wear down even the best big men?
Will the Cats be able to handle success?
When looking at the schedule, it’s easy to assume some wins. If things go to plan, Arizona will be in the national spotlight and will face the associated distractions. Will the Cats be able to stay hungry and focused enough to avoid the letdowns that plague so many teams? Like UNLV last year, many teams start off hot and regress as the season goes on because they did not continue to improve. And when the bright lights turn on, will the seniors be able to lead a balanced attack, or will players find themselves looking for their own shot?
Will the Cats get the marquee wins that are so important in March?
With UCLA struggling, it appears Arizona will get fewer chances for big wins than originally thought. With so much emphasis being placed on the Florida and (potential) SDSU matchups, the pressure will be stifling heading into those games. Knowing how badly they need to win, will Arizona be able to remain calm and trust the process? The Pac-12 won’t provide enough chances to for Arizona to increase its national stock, but it will provide many opportunities for “bad losses.” Thirty days from now, fans will know just what kind of profile Arizona has built in non-conference play, and what kind of record will be needed to secure a top seed.
Whatever the answers, the next 30 days and 8 games should be a roller coaster. And Arizona fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Enjoy the ride.