Got into the conversation earlier this week about the magnitude of Arizona’s win in Tempe. He called it “the biggest win of the season.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, bro,” I thought. “Don’t be a hyperbolic victim of the moment.” A rivalry game, to be certain, but Arizona was expected to win. Hell, Arizona has been expected to win nearly every game they’ve played by KenPom’s predictive analytics. So no, I was not prepared to call the ASU victory Arizona’s biggest of the season.
But maybe it was? Maybe when a team asserts itself in the manner we and they expect – defeating an inferior opponent through the imposition of its will – it is indeed the biggest. After all, it provides the tape that says, “See, look at what you can do.”
And so I began to get behind it, wrapping my head around the fact that there was an implied magnitude to that game, a knowing opponent with every reason to pounce on the opportunity to ride emotion to an unsuspecting victory. Arizona made sure that would not be the case because they are indeed the better team and perhaps set a whole new bar.
After that game, in his brief address to the team, Miller spoke glowingly of Brandon Ashley’s effort. He’d just held ASU senior, Carrick Felix, who averages 15/8, to 5 points on 1-8 shooting. Felix coughed the ball up seven times. Miller raved of Ashley’s work, telling him there was both good news and bad news surrounding his game. The good news? Brandon Ashley had just played the best defensive game of his collegiate career. The bad news? “You let the cat out of the bag. That’s now what you have to do, everyday in every game,” Miller exclaimed to collective laughter and cheers.
So Thursday night – with McKale whited out and loud and raucous and nationally televised at a reasonable national hour and hosting the most consequential UCLA-Arizona game in the Sean Miller era – the Wildcats have the opportunity to let their collective Cat out of the bag.
Because ultimately, this isn’t that big of a game. UCLA is good, not great, and certainly on the downslope by big picture standards. As both of these teams are chasing Oregon for conference supremacy, every Pac-12 game will be important. But as far as big games go, this one isn’t quite on the level of what Arizona-UCLA once was. Because what UCLA brings to the table is identity-less and joyless and uninspiring. Like in Hook where Captain Hook has the opportunity to eliminate Pan but refrains, allotting him three days to become the “great and worthy opponent” he feels Peter Banning is not. The Captain will not accept a bout unless his adversary, Pan, can pose a challenge. Where are the great and worthy Bruins?
And the exception in this case is that, big picture, Arizona is Pan and UCLA Hook. The Wildcats are spry and youthful, jubilant and crowing about Neverland. The Bruins? Well they’re curmugoned and fearful of the clock. Because the clock is ticking on Howland and the inevitable one-and-done roster turnover and Tony Parker’ seemingly impending transfer. Collectively, there are too many sideshows to sift through to view a match up with UCLA as much more than special laundry.
Now don’t get me wrong here. By no means am I being dismissive of the challenge the Bruins present. They have talented basketball players. But the importance of this game has a lot more to do with what’s happening in the red jersey than the other tank. Moving forward, Arizona’s schedule is for making statements, further asserting their agenda, letting more and more cats out of the bag.
What’s a big game? Beating your upstart and hungry arch rival on the road is big. Winning the first match up of top-10 teams on your home floor in nearly a decade is a big game. Capturing the title of a three-game, four-day Christmas in Maui tournament is big.
Big isn’t a two way street. It’s a one lane freeway with two lanes and no one knows what direction UCLA is going.