Every March the hopes of all college basketball fans get dashed and fulfilled by what we affectionately call March Madness. This year will be no different. There is only one team that goes on a six game winning streak to end the year. Will your team be the one? One can only hope, right? In the Pac-12, the one realistic hope the conference has is the Arizona Wildcats. The Cats have shown consistently this year that they can beat the best teams in front of them. The Pac-12 had a down year, but in the end, the Wildcats beat who they had to. There is a tough streak in these Cats that will serve them well going forward in the tournament.
Arizona is the only team with a winning record versus top 25 competition in the Pac-12 this year. Every other conference team is way below the .500 mark against the best teams in the country. That says something about how much talent Head Coach Sean Miller has amassed in Tucson. They beat Gonzaga in an early season match-up, swept Utah (top 20 team) during league play, beat up on UCLA, which is not saying that much, but the Bruins did make the tourney, and they destroyed another tournament team in Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament Championship game. While the Pac-12 did get four teams in, Arizona is really the only team, in my opinion that has a legit shot at winning the title. Even in this year of Kentucky, Arizona can play with anybody on an elite level.
The Wildcats have the type of team that will not get rattled by the ball hawking craziness of Kentucky. One unnamed NBA scout says that the Wildcats that one of Arizona’s strengths lies in their point guard. T.J. McConnell. McConnell was in the running for Pac-12 player of the year, but that’s not what he wants. He wants a title. T.J is a four year starter for Coach Sean Miller and has been through the battles. If the match up with Kentucky happens or even the match up with Wisconsin happens, McConnell will be able to handle the intense pressure that comes with the lose and go home format. The next guy that will create problems for Kentucky, Wisconsin, or anybody else for that matter will be Stanley Johnson.
Stanley Johnson is the much talked about freshman for Arizona. This guy is simply a monster of a player. He has an NBA body ready to order according to NBA scouts and anybody that has seen him play. He is 6’7”, 245lbs, and built like an inside linebacker. Many scouts see him as a starter in “The League” with that kind of body and athletic ability. With the amount of talent that the Wildcats have, he didn’t have to score a lot of points to make an impact. In the end, Johnson averaged 14.1 points per game. If you have plans to cut the nets down at the end, you need a player like this to help counter the talent on the Badgers or those other Wildcats in the Bluegrass State. What else does Arizona have?
One of the best all-around players in the Pac-12 is what they have in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. There are few things that this young player possesses that will make life difficult for anybody or any team that has to game plan for him. He is 6’7”, with a 7-foot wingspan, and would regularly be assigned to guard the best player on the opposing team by Coach Miller. In the end, the best players from the opposition would only average about 12 points a game and shoot an average 35% from the field when Hollis-Jefferson was put on them. There are things you look for in a player, like toughness, and when you are guarding the best from the other team that tells you almost everything you need to know about how the head coach feels about this type of player. The other aspect of Hollis-Jefferson’s game that makes him unique is that he is a dynamic wing player on the offensive end of the floor. He has a slashing, aggressive style that makes him tough to defend. He makes his opponent work extremely hard on defense, so that they are tired on their offensive side of the floor. A dictionary definition of a kid who does a little bit of everything on the floor. He scores, defends, and hits the boards for the Wildcats.
Arizona has some size in the middle as well. To counter any size by Kentucky or Wisconsin, you need size and they have it in Kaleb Tarczewski, their own 7-footer. He doesn’t put up gigantic numbers, but he certainly can run with any big man, and can he play defense. Tarczewski is going to have to come up very big for Arizona if/when they meet up with Kentucky or even Wisconsin during the tournament.
The final thing that Arizona has is their coach. Sean Miller. Some people say that you don’t want to follow a legend at a school, but Sean Miller has and he has embraced it. Even though he’s not the guy to come right after Lute Olson, he’s the guy that has brought prominence back to Tucson. Olson still casts a huge shadow at Arizona, but Miller is starting to cast his own shadow over the program. He’s taken the Cats to the Elite 8 and now is looking to take the next step for his program. He’s a competitive guy who has shown the acumen to game plan very well for an opponent. In my opinion, I know he can match wits with the likes of Calipari, Coach K, or anybody else that he comes across in the course of the tournament.
Keep this in mind as well if you are one of the many people that think this year simply belongs to Kentucky. It’s not a best of 7 series, it is a one and done situation. Anybody on any given night is capable of pulling the major upset. It’s why you play the game. Kentucky is talented, no doubt, but there are other teams out there that can play with them. One of them is certainly the Arizona Wildcats. Bear Down Arizona, Bear Down.