Uh oh. Here come the upped hopes.
Forget the pedestrian 12-9 record. Forget the RPI in the 50s. Sunday’s game was about the Pac-10 standings and the young Wildcats challenging themselves with something significant on the line.
On this one day the Cats played in a big game and Sean Miller guided them to a win.
This wasn’t a case of upsetting someone who was looking ahead to someone else. First place vs. second place gets everyone’s attention.
It wasn’t a case of a long-time champion getting complacent. We know about Cal’s football drought (last Rose bowl in 1958-’59) but their basketball void is even worse. The Bears haven’t won even a share of a Pac-10 hoops championship since 1959-’60. Winning this title would be a huge deal for Mike Montgomery and his team.
(It begs the question: Is Cal good at anything? Turns out the answer is rugby and crew.)
Look, we get it. This wasn’t #1 Arizona clinching the Pac-10 against Monty’s top-20 Stanford team in 2003. Or Montgomery beating top-20 Arizona on his way to a 26-1 regular season the following year.
We all know the league is down. If the Pacific-10 were the Pacific Ocean, this year’s version would be the Mariana Trench.
All that mattered on the final day of January, 2010, was that Arizona hosted the top team in the Pac-10 and the Wildcats left McKale Center as the new top team in the Pac-10.
Winning at ASU may have been the turning point but young teams really grow up when they can succeed in close games against quality opponents. The Cal game was as back-and-forth as they come. The contest was tied with five minutes left. The lead changed hands four times after that. It was like overtime in regular time.
The Bears’ final lead came as a result of what would have been the game’s signature play if Arizona had let it slip away. I’m not up-to-date on my cardinal sins but I have to think fouling a 93% free throw shooter behind the arc with a two-point lead and less than a minute to play has to rank pretty high.
But Niq Wise atoned for his error by scoring the game’s final five points and adding to his crunch-time legacy. This particular game-winner was slower in developing than his previous two but Niq’s right-then-left-then-right-again drive got the job done.
The old McKale magic also did its part. After Wise’s and-one, Kevin Parrom was too far off Theo Robertson with just a two point lead but Robertson’s three just missed. After Cal secured the offensive rebound Theo got into the lane but lost the ball out of bounds without attempting a shot. Two more Niq foul shots and the Cats were back in first place.
After going 2-0 in rivalry games (UCLA still counts in my book) Sean Miller is now 1-0 in Really Big Games.
We thought we were going to be able to cruise through pressure-free games until the Pac-10 tournament. Now we have to sweat through nerve-racking road games and get back to anxiety-inducing scoreboard watching.
Isn’t it great?
Cat fans should get their hopes up. We’re in first place! And we have the tie-breaker for the #1 seed!
The reality, however, is that even though Cal has an extra road game remaining the Bears still have the advantage on the back nine. Trips to L.A. and the Oregons are easier than the Cats’ trips to the Washingtons and the Bay. If Cal can survive SoCal (and USC is fading) the Bears could go on a major tear to finish the season.
So what exactly would it take for Arizona to win this thing? Another 6-3 to finish at 12-6 is the minimum to be in the discussion. That would be 4-1 at home and 2-2 on the road, which would be no easy task considering the final four road games are against teams that are a combined 43-7 in their own gym.
The more likely requirement is winning every remaining home game (Oregon, OSU, ASU, UCLA and USC) and then establishing the value of your championship bid by winning one or two road games.
Possible? You have to be worried there are going to be a couple more 33% shooting nights down the stretch. Then there’s the constant threat of foul trouble for one of our top two scorers. And just how many more game-winners does Niq have in him?
All questions to be answered in time. What cannot be questioned is we have a really good basketball coach (again) and we have talented young players who are responding to their coach (again). And it’s happening already halfway through their collective first Pac-10 season.
All to the delight of our championship-loving nerves.
More coverage from the TucsonCitizen.com sports network:
Steve Rivera: Wise to the rescue again in victory over Cal
Anthony Gimino: Can we consider Derrick Williams a top 150 freshman now?