Arizona escaped defeat at Stanford, but is it beneficial to be unbeaten?
STANFORD, Calif. -- Sean Miller stood in a cramped hallway outside his team's locker room in Maples Pavilion on Wednesday night. A half-hour earlier the sold-out arena was rocking with Stanford students foaming at the possibility of their team taking down No. 1. Now it was empty and quiet after top-ranked Arizona prevailed yet again, 60-57, to improve to 21-0.
Despite having just watched his team's worst shooting performance of the season (36 percent) and a near-disastrous night at the free-throw line (62.1 percent, including two missed close-out opportunities in the final minute), the Wildcats' coach seemed generally unperturbed.
"Our offense is moving in the wrong direction," he admitted, but added, "I don't mean that in a really bad way. ... I think we can get it back, no question about it, but we don't want to play in the 60s. Same thing with the foul line."
Wednesday night's game was as close as close calls get, with the Wildcats trailing most of the second half and prevailing only after star Nick Johnson's clutch three with 51 seconds remaining finally gave Arizona a lead it wouldn't relinquish. In a physical game, Stanford limited the Wildcats to an uncharacteristically low six offensive rebounds on 32 missed shots.
But Arizona also went into a respectable Pac-12 foe's gym and held the Cardinal (13-7) to just one field goal over the game's final 10 minutes. If the Wildcats can play that poorly on offense and still win a tough conference road game, it makes you wonder: Is this team ever going to lose?
"You look at your room for error," said Miller. "We have a lot because we're a great defensive team."
The undefeated season remains college basketball's modern unicorn, but for the first time since 1975-76, three teams -- Arizona, No. 2 Syracuse and No. 4 Wichita State -- have started 20-0. That also happens to be the year Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers pulled off the sport's last full-season perfecto.
Arizona's toughest remaining test on paper takes place Saturday when the Wildcats visit Cal (14-7) on the back end of their Bay Area doubleheader. After that, there aren't a lot of obvious obstacles. But then, college basketball upsets usually happen when you least see them coming. Ask Wisconsin. Or Ohio State.
Realistically, neither Arizona nor Syracuse nor Wichita State is going to run the table. Heck, it's been 23 years since a team (1990-91 UNLV) even entered the NCAA tournament undefeated. Given that it's more important that a team reach its peak in early April, not early February, and given that recent teams that have won their first 20 games like 2011 Ohio State (started 24-0) and 2012 Syracuse (20-0) and Murray State (23-0) did not even make the Final Four, is it sacrilegious to suggest a team like Arizona might actually be better off losing a game sometime soon?
Cal coach Mike Montgomery thinks so -- and not just because his team faces the Wildcats next. At Stanford, Montgomery coached two teams (2001 and '04) that won 20 or more games to start the season, with the '04 team making it all the way to the final week of the regular season before losing for the first time. Those Cardinal entered the NCAA tournament No. 1 in the polls only to fall in the Round of 32 to eighth-seed Alabama.
"Knowing kids' psyche, knowing how the media responds to it, getting that [loss] off your back is probably something that can be productive for you," Montgomery said earlier this week. "Ultimately your goal is to win the championship in conference, get in the NCAAs and try to win the NCAAs, and ultimately that loss will have nothing to do with it -- unless of course it's in the tournament."
Arizona knew it was walking into a hornet's nest Wednesday night. Stanford basketball is hardly a hot ticket these days but that number in front of the opponent's name assured a heavy turnout, particularly from the students (who gorged on free tacos beforehand). "That's what you have to expect when you're No. 1," said Wildcats point guard T.J. McConnell. "On the road they're going to give you their best shot."
As long as Arizona remains No. 1, it can expect every game it plays to feel like the national championship for somebody -- which you would think might start to weigh on the players.
"I felt the pressure," recalled Montgomery. "I tried to keep it away from our guys. You don't think about it along the way, you're just hoping to win the next game, but when we got to the very end where we were one or two wins away from actually being the first [Pac-10] team to go 18-0, it was there. I couldn't deny it."
Miller's approach to dealing with the same scenario has been to ignore it. Or at least re-frame the focus. He challenges his team to win every night, not because of the historical implications.
"My worry is about the Pac-12 conference race, trying to win it," said Miller. "Winning on the road is part of that path." He remembers last year's team starting 8-2 in conference play only to lose four of its last eight and finish in a three-way tie for second.
This year's team, at 8-0, is about to hit the same back-end stretch.
"We have so many players that went through that experience last year," he said. "They understand the importance of every day, and practice, keep working on getting better rather than worrying about continuing to win."
A pair of juniors, Johnson and McConnell, will likely play the biggest role in deflecting any mounting pressure. While highly touted freshman forward and San Jose native Aaron Gordon struggled mightily in his first trip back home (five points on 2-of-10 shooting), McConnell, usually a pass-first guy, gave the Wildcats some much-needed scoring help in the first half. And Johnson, the frontrunner for Pac-12 player of the year, simply took over down the stretch, hitting two go-ahead baskets in the final 2:36 and finishing with a game-high 16 points.
"That's what the leader on the team is supposed to do," said Johnson. "If you're shaky and kind of hesitant about everything, then everybody else will be. So I've just got to keep that confidence in my mind. I've done the work to deserve this."
Arizona has all the ingredients to cut down the nets -- a masterful ball distributor (McConnell), a clutch shooter (Johnson) and reliable second scorer (Brandon Ashley), skilled rebounders (Gordon and center Kaleb Tarczewski) and a prototypical glue guy (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson). Most importantly, it's a veteran group that plays exceptional team defense, arguably the two biggest keys come March Madness.
But are these Wildcats so special as to merit reasonable consideration they could go 40-0? It's highly doubtful, especially given they're barely halfway there. The next poor shooting night or last-second finish might not swing their way.
But that might not necessarily be a bad thing.