It wasn’t easy at home but the Arizona Wildcats took care of business against Colorado and Utah. Two wins were needed; two wins were recorded.
Next up is a trip to the state of Washington with first place on the line. These are the games you look forward to as a fan. Big stakes mean big fun.
And big anxiety.
The Colorado game was a solid bit of revenge making up for a close road loss earlier in the year. The Utah game was not that.
No, the win over the Utes wasn’t pretty. It didn’t even have a “nice personality.” Each of Sean Miller’s strong words was appropriate.
One sliver of beauty was the performance of the three UA freshmen who make up 43% of the player rotation. Nick Johnson had 18 points on Saturday, his most in a month, and he made 11-of-13 free throws (85%) over the weekend. Josiah Turner dished out a season-high seven assists against Utah. Angelo Chol had eight points and four blocked shots in the two games. These guys are getting better, rising to the challenge and making significant contributions.
As a result they get to spend another week playing as a contender and they now get to go toe-to-toe with another contender.
It’s why you come to play basketball at Arizona. Last year’s championship rookies can use that experience to prepare them for this week. This year’s new guys will be able to take whatever they learn from these next two games and use it the rest of their careers.
As part of that learning experience it’s good that the Washington State game comes first. Pac-12 weekends are a single war broken into two battles. Winning one only gets the job half done (as the Cats came oh-so-close to proving against Utah). You can’t tie Washington in the standings if you don’t first beat Wazzu.
In the same way it’s a taste of what preparing for an NCAA tournament weekend is like. Even if the bracket shows a matchup with the #1 seed in the next round, you can’t ignore the 6- or 8-seed right in front of you.
It’s counterintuitive but the WSU game is the most important one this week. Beating the Huskies would be great but beating the Cougars is crucial. Even sitting a game out of first place, two losses could put the UA right back on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. When your team is razor thin you constantly live on the razor’s edge.
And that’s where the fan anxiety comes in. We The People have our hopes nice and high and we’ve opened ourselves up to getting our hearts broken the week of Valentine’s Day.
An entire spectrum of fan emotions is possible this week. The euphoria of winning both (Bay Area sweep part II!), the status quo of winning one (Ho-hum L.A. split!), or the terror of critical losses (90% of the Utah game!).
This is where it’s good to remember it’s much better to have a shot at something big and come up short than to be irrelevant the entire year. It’s also worth noting that with the current four-game streak the Wildcats locked up a winning season for the 28th straight year. That’s a lot of shots at a lot of big things.
Arizona has an impressive 6-3 road record. The only other team in the Pac-12 with a winning mark away from home this year is Oregon at 5-4. This team has done it before, just with a different kind of pressure.
Thursday night is a huge road game. Win that and you get another huge one two days later.
That anxiousness building in your stomach?
That’s the fun.
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