The Arizona Wildcats are now 12-0 and off to their best start in 25 years.
It seems that the Wildcats are being overlooked, as they are ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll and No. 4 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll behind a one-loss Louisville team.
After Arizona won the Diamond Head Classic by besting the No. 16 San Diego State in dramatic fashion, the Wildcat faithful have a team to believe in.
I guess the question now remains—with Duke also at 12-0, Michigan at 13-0 and Louisville at 12-1—can the ‘Cats make up any ground and, more importantly, what will it take for them to overtake such perennial powerhouses?
Their RPI Needs to Improve
Arizona has now played and beaten two Top 20 teams—by one point each. By the same token, the current No. 1 Duke Blue Devils have beaten three Top Five teams by at least five points each.
When Duke played No. 3 Kentucky, Arizona played Charleston Southern. When Duke played back-to-back games vs. No. 2 Louisville and No. 4 Ohio State, Arizona played Long Beach St. and Northern Arizona in that same time frame.
It’s true that Arizona has a decent RPI, coming in at No. 8, but their strength-of-schedule rank is a miserable 52. Wyoming is also 12-0 with a convincing seven-point victory over No. 19 Colorado, yet they aren’t ranked in either poll.
The Cowboys’ RPI is in the Top 25 due to their 4-0 record against RPI Top 50 teams, but their SoS Rank is a horrid 214, as they’ve played schools that I didn’t know had basketball teams.
If Wyoming can play and beat four teams in the RPI Top 50, why is it that Arizona has only played two?
They Need to Dominate Lesser Teams
The one caveat of playing lesser teams is that you need to beat them and do it with authority. Arizona trailed Charleston Southern 11-3, and the Buccaneers kept within five points up until there were five minutes left in the game. They Wildcats were also down seven points at halftime versus Southern Mississippi and didn’t take control of the game, once again, until the final five minutes.
This alarming trend needs to stop, as teams such as Colorado, UCLA and even Arizona State will not allow Arizona to claw back into the game in the final minutes. Once they smell blood from the Wildcats, they will keep the dominant pressure on and finish the task at hand.
The Turnovers Need to Be Curtailed
The Southern Miss game was a perfect example of sloppy play, as Arizona committed a season-high 27 turnovers. Conversely, when the Wildcats beat No. 16 San Diego State, they only committed eight turnovers, and when they beat No. 5 Florida, they only turned it over 10 times.
Arizona’s 174 total turnovers and average of 14.5 per game is tied for the most among current Top 10 teams. Michigan has 50 fewer turnovers with one more game under its belt. Duke has 136 and Ohio State has 125—these are the marks of quality, disciplined teams that have gone deep into the NCAA tournament on several occasions.
I would like to say that the turnovers are a result of the four new freshmen playing in Sean Miller’s rotation, but I can’t. The leading offender—by a large margin—is senior transfer student Mark Lyons. With 35 total turnovers, he is averaging nearly three per game. He is also the team’s leading scorer and assist-grabber, so I am not doubting his ability as a player; I’m just stating that he needs a better handle on the ball.
Hope for Big Upsets
We have seen Temple beat Syracuse and Butler topple Indiana in an overtime thriller, so it is possible for the ‘Cats to overtake Duke and Michigan if they maintain their spotless record.
Much like Arizona, but on a much larger scale, the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils have made it through the toughest part of their schedule, beating three Top Five teams in the month of November. The Atlantic Coast Conference, once labeled as the toughest in the nation, is suffering from mediocrity, with only one other team in the Top 25 polls.
North Carolina State is ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll at 10-2, and the Blue Devils’ biggest rival, the North Carolina Tar Heels, are now 10-3 after upsetting No. 20 UNLV on Saturday. The Tar Heels could see a number in front of their name going into conference play.
Michigan has a much tougher road to navigate, as it enters conference play with five teams in the Big Ten currently ranked in the Top 25. The Wolverines face back-to-back showdowns on the road at No. 10 Ohio State and No. 11 Minnesota in mid-January. It will not get any easier, as they will later face a 10-day stretch in which they have to play at No. 5 Indiana and at in-state rival No. 19 Michigan State.
If the Wolverines can escape conference play unscathed, they deserve the No. 1 ranking regardless of what any other team does.
The good news for Wildcat fans is that it seems nearly impossible.
Win the Conference
It may sound simple, but it is a fact. The Wildcats are entering Pac-12 Conference play on Saturday night where they left off last season—against Colorado.
This time, the game will be at home in the comfy confines of McKale Center. Coach Sean Miller and the Wildcats have had this day circled on their calendars since losing the inaugural Pac-12 Conference Tournament to the newcomer.
Many preseason polls predicted the Wildcats and the UCLA Bruins to be neck-and-neck throughout the season and favorites to face off in the conference championship. Save for the Bruins’ upset win in overtime against Missouri, they have been quite lackluster, with losses to Georgetown, Cal Poly and San Diego State.
While the Bruins have been surprisingly bad, the Arizona State Sun Devils and Oregon Ducks have been surprisingly good. The Sun Devils are 11-2 going into conference play, with losses to No. 14 Creighton and DePaul, while Oregon is 10-2 with a loss to No. 22 Cincinnati and a triple-overtime loss to UTEP.
Arizona will visit the Ducks on Jan. 10 for only its third game in enemy territory. The Wildcats travel to Tempe to take on the Sun Devils on the 19th for what will surely be a raucous affair.
If the Wildcats can run the Pac-12 table and Michigan and Duke lose games along the way, maybe, just maybe, the voters will see it fit to put a Pac-12 team at No. 1.
Don’t hold your breath.