Despite a slow start and a slim, 34-31 lead at halftime, top-ranked Arizona rolled to another victory on Sunday with a 73-53 win over USC in Pac-12 conference play, and now begin the second half of the regular season as the current kings of college basketball.
Led by a season-high 19 points from both T.J. McConnell and Brandon Ashley, Arizona flexed their muscles with a 16-0 run late in the second-half after leading by only five points with nine minutes remaining, outscoring their hosts 25-10 over the final 8 1/2 minutes of regulation.
Freshman sensation Aaron Gordon finished with 12 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats who were evenly matched on the glass for the first time this season while holding USC to a season-low 53 points.
But beyond simply beginning another week atop both the USA Today and Associated Press top-25, Arizona is 17-0 for the first time in their school’s history, and are currently the odds-on favorite to secure a Pac-12 title prior to making a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
After getting off to a 14-0 start in 2012-13, Arizona finished with a very respectable 27-8 record and earned themselves a No. 6 seed in the West region of the NCAA tourney. With wins over Belmont and Harvard in the first two rounds of the tournament, hopes were high for the Wildcats before being defeated by the Ohio State Buckeyes in the “Sweet 16.”
Now in his fifth season as head coach of the Wildcats, Sean Miller has already led his program to wins over several top-25 schools such as Duke, Michigan, San Diego State, UCLA, and the University of Washington during Arizona’s recent ascent into the record books.
But while both experts and fans alike argue that the Big Ten or even the ACC present the most formidable conference schedules this season, a closer look at the remaining games on Arizona’s calendar may provide evidence to the contrary.
In fact, based solely on overall records, the Wildcats don’t have a single game remaining on their schedule against an opponent who’s currently below .500, and the “worst” competition that they’ll face prior to the post season will be Oregon State (9-7), who they’ll meet twice before it’s all over.
While a top-five program such as Wichita State in some way benefits from a soft conference schedule, the Wildcats will be constantly tested and continually receive their opponent’s best effort in each and every single game down the stretch.
For example, over their next five games, Arizona will host Arizona State (13-4) on Jan. 16, No. 21 Colorado (14-3) on the 23rd, and Utah (12-4) on the 26th, before traveling to the state of California for road games at Stanford (10-5) on the 29th and Cal (12-4) on Feb. 1.
Fortunately for the Wildcats however, a 4-0 start to conference play combined with the program’s first road sweep of the Los Angeles-area schools UCLA and USC for the first time since the 2004-05 season bodes well for the immediate future, and basketball fans in Tucson wouldn’t miss it for the world.