McKale Center blimp

The Cats hope to maintain this lofty altitude.
Photo by Wildcat Universe

The Arizona Wildcatswin over Michigan is as impressive a road victory as you’ll find in college basketball so far this season. It was a championship-caliber performance by the No. 1 team in the country.

The only problem is there are a lot of games to be played before any champions are determined. Is this UA team at risk of peaking too soon?

The timing of the question is fitting because the day after Saturday’s win in Ann Arbor was the one-year anniversary of last year’s biggest basketball win. Remember the excitement 12 months ago when Arizona beat Florida? The Cats were undefeated and ranked in the top five.

And then they lost seven games to Pac-12 teams.

That win against a top-five team on Dec. 15 ended up being the high point of the season. How do we know this won’t be a repeat of last year?

Hindsight tells us last year’s comebacks masked the 2013 squad’s deficiencies. If you get outplayed for 39 minutes but win the game in the final 60 seconds you still got beat for 98% of the game. Those odds caught up with last year’s Cats.

Looking at the current season’s games I’ll give you Drexel. Arizona had no business winning that one after falling behind by 19. But the Wildcats led wire to wire against San Diego State and pulled away from Duke in the second half.

You also won’t find any Sabatino Chen (non-)moments among this year’s victories.

Even in this most recent game where Michigan led for the majority of the contest, Arizona did not “steal” the win. It wasn’t a fluke flurry in the final minute like last year’s game against the Gators. Scoring on each of your final 11 possessions over six-and-a-half minutes isn’t masking weakness; it’s displaying strength.

It’s also hard to peak too soon if you haven’t peaked. The Cats only shot 44% from the field against Michigan and just 42% versus UNLV. There were 11 first-half turnovers against Texas Tech. The UA is still finding its way in half-court sets and struggling to finish at the rim.

On the defensive end, is peaking too soon even possible? In baseball they say that speed never slumps. Well, neither do 7-4 wingspans. If you’re long and athletic and coachable in December you’re going to be all those things in March.

There was definite improvement at the free throw line against Michigan. Looking at the numbers though it was more about who shot them as opposed to guys making more of them. Arizona’s two best free throw shooters, Nick Johnson (84%) and Kaleb Tarczewski (76%), combined for 10 attempts against the Wolverines while Aaron Gordon (45%) and T.J. McConnell (58%) didn’t shoot any.

McConnell needs to get his percentage up near the 84% he shot at Duquesne two years ago so he can be Johnson’s co-closer at the end of games (or at least a good set-up man). Gordon needs to keep working at the line so he’s not a liability in the final five minutes.

(By way, Kaleb Tarczewski is Arizona’s second-best free throw shooter?! Talk about a guy greatly improving his future earning potential. Also add Brandon Ashley (59% FG, 75% FT, 54% 3-PT) to that list. Considering Gordon is already a lottery pick and Johnson could end up being a “stock will not get any higher” guy, there’s the possibility of significant roster turnover next spring. Yet another reason to enjoy this season for all its worth.)

Arizona is 11-0 with three very impressive wins but Wildcat Universe should continue fighting the 40-0 thoughts. The UA’s conference schedule includes both California road trips, a visit to the mountain schools and the Oregon Trail. The Wildcats can be getting better even if they have to endure some court-storming losses along the way.

So it’s OK if the early-season wins keep piling up. My contact lenses are admittedly tinted red and blue but I don’t see this team even close to reaching its full potential. There is plenty to work on as the season wears on, both as individuals and as a unit. The No. 1 Cats still have room to improve.

They just happen to be good enough to win while they’re at it.

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