Category Archives: Arizona

My Trip to Ann Arbor, MI

Standing in the tunnel, just off of the Crisler Center floor outside the locker rooms, Greg Byrne was fulfilling the responsibilities of the coolest job in the world. Glad-handing friends of the program and telling people he didn’t remember that he most certainly remembered them, he stank of charm and victory. When it was my turn to shake the Athletic Director’s hand, I said, “Greg, I really like the sports.” He chuckled and told me he shared those sentiments and carried on through the crowd.

I most certainly do enjoy the sports, I confirmed as much by flying to Ann Arbor for 40 hours of collegiate fun. I also confirmed with the wait staff at Ashley’s on State Street that their establishment was indeed not named for Brandon Ashley who had just scored 18 non-Wolverine points that afternoon. I’m not sure I’m welcome back.

Crisler Center

What was further confirmed in Michigan was that these ‘Cats are deserving of their number one ranking. That they’re equal parts balanced, talented, tough, and fortunate. A special combination that suggests North Texas. They took every possible blow from a talented albeit youthful Wolverine squad and responded. As I’ve noted many times on PacHoops, it isn’t necessarily what you do but how you respond. As Arizona needed a moment – a stop, a basket, a something – they got it. I’ll note my two favorites:

  1. Cuffed by foul trouble and general bouts of ineffectiveness, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was not enjoying his time in Crisler. The new rules were being called to the T and RHJ had tapped a few too many players. Four to be exact. But with Arizona down a deuce and everyone beginning to recognize that the Wolverines might really knock #1 off, Nick Johnson found a streaking Hollis-Jefferson who found his way by a Wolverine, absorbed the harm, and finished. Perhaps it was the two points and/or extra point Brady Hoke couldn’t find but Hollis-Jefferson scored one basket on Saturday and it gave Arizona their first lead since early in the first half.
  2. I was tempted to tell someone – twitter or text or the guys next to me – but I thought the better. I wanted to see things play out, see the mettle of these Wildcats, before I started looking for pieces that might not be so obviously there. Because a season ago it Mark Lyons’ ball. Now I say that knowing it didn’t matter if there were 15 seconds or 15 minutes remaining but for better or worse, Mark and everyone else knew that he was going to be making the play in the moment. We loved him for it. We hated him for it. For my money Lyons was our guy and I liked it. Alas, I refrained from putting my thoughts into the public space. What I was thinking was that Arizona could really use a Lyons-type in these final two minutes. Where was the ball going to go? The Wolverines twice had gone to Nik Stauskas and that makes good sense because he’s good. I suggested Arizona try and steal him back to Tucson. They did not. But with the score standing about equal and the clock sprinting for zeros, where was the ball going to hang out? Arizona had run its offense deliberately for 38 minutes and with sound effectiveness. But could that work in the hectic moments of a monster game? Well what came to be didn’t necessarily surprise but rather should scare the hell out of the rest of everyone. Brandon Ashley took the ball at McGary feigned his way to the right, muscled McGary off, and banked in the Wildcats’ 64th and 65th points. Needing a basket, Arizona went to Brandon Ashley and he made a professional grade basketball play. I said that to the strangers next to me and was later informed by friends that they too immediately called it an NBA move. Now that’s coming from the kid that I’ve long thought whatever you get from him is icing on the cake. That’s not necessarily a knock on Ashley, but more a recognition of the consistent and solid output of Johnson and Gordon. Arizona’s third option became its go to option and he made a play that no other player on the roster could make.

It was a wonderful display of competition performed by the maize and red teams. John Beilein is a fantastic coach and Stauskas can play. I tend to take anything a fan base says about their own with a grain of salt but all of the “Glenn Robinson III is as talented as anyone” talk wasn’t hyperbole. UM fans are right that he could take games over – and he did such in the first half – with a more assertive mentality. McGary isn’t an All-American but Caris LeVert sure could be. The Crisler Center was beautiful and a great place to take in a ball game. It wasn’t the rowdiest place I’ve been but we were there for the wrong sport. I walked away understanding very clearly that we were at a football school. Had the game been next door and played by 11 players a side, 110,000 people would’ve showed up to watch outside through a miserable snow storm. Six total inches of snow fell during my stay. I asked countless locals how we could sneak into that stadium but eventually succumbed to the cold and liquor. We had a town to paint red.

But even with regards to that, we didn’t last long. Waking up at 830am local time (EST) equates to 530am home time (PST) and there just wasn’t enough gas in the tank. Bed was acquired by 11pm and I never made it to the famous Zingerman’s. We did make it, however, to Rick’s Friday night. The place was a riot. It smelled of college and if you don’t know what that means then go buy a 12-pack of cheap beer, cheaper whiskey, and a plastic bottle of vodka. Get some food coloring, seven-up and a colorful looking soda that’s definitely off brand. Do not spend more than $20 on these items and pour them all over the ground with remixed hip hop, your best dance moves, a crumpled one dollar bill, a shred of hope, some invincibility, and none of your maturity. If available, include vomit and sweat in this adulteration. For authenticity. Jump up and down on this in your oldest shoes with a hat on backward and that’s the smell of college. Rick’s was everything I’d been warned of. Who’s coming with me next weekend?

Rick's, Ann Arbor

Enter at your own risk.

Yes we got the full Ann Arbor experience and our team won, too. It was a great weekend and this flight I’m on right now hurts. Most specifically my head but I’ve got an Arizona shirt on and I couldn’t disagree with the man in the bathroom line when he told me “that Sean Miller has got one fine ball club over there.” I couldn’t disagree with him one bit.

Back to that tunnel. With Byrne all smiles and family members giddy to see their game winning sons, we just sort of hovered. Basking in victory and the excitement of it all, we heard a familiar voice from behind us, “Quite a turn out from you Arizona fans. Well done.” Well I like compliments so that’s nice. We turned to thank the voice.

“I’ll see you all in Dallas,” said Jim Nantz.

He might be right. Do they have Rick’s there?

Q&A with Dylan Burkhardt of UMHoops: Wolverine Genius

The forecast is for something called “snow” and I’ve packed little beyond a red shirt. I’m going to Ann Arbor. I’m headed out there to go to the Crisler Center, home of the Michigan Wolverines. Naturally, I needed to learn more of this enemy despite having Ohio State blood in me and RichRod as my coach.

For my education I took to the best, UMHoops.com, to learn about this basketball team. First of all, one has to appreciate a site that takes the naming structure of [topic prefix]hoops. It’s brilliant. Furthermore, Dylan Burkhardt has quite the operation over there. Wolverine genius. On WANE I called the site “comprehensive” but learn for yourself. What’s more – and you’ll learn this below – it really is brilliant. Dylan and his crew know this program in and out and by reading it you’re going to learn more about basketball than anything else. It’s a smart website for many reasons, but maybe not necessarily because they asked me questions on how to prepare for Arizona.

UMHoops  –  @UMHOOPS  –  UMHoops FB

A big thanks to Dylan for taking the time. Here’s to seeing you in Ann Arbor. The questions & answers:

I’ve only ever lived in Tucson, San Diego, and San Francisco. What is cold?

Considering the fact that you are going to the game and the forecast is 24 degrees and snowy, you’ll know soon enough. And you probably won’t be nearly as excited once you do.

You’ve seen a season and change of Mitch McGary. He’s a fine ball player who had a sound freshman season. Then the nation got to see him and he blow up like Ohio State’s BCS dreams (but in a good way). He’s subsequently been called a pre-season All-American. Now he’s been a little dinged up to date but: Is McGary AA good?

He has the ability, no question about that. McGary’s stamina isn’t where it needs to be right now after he missed the entire preseason and the first two games of this year with a back injury. John Beilein will tell you that and McGary would agree.

McGary can completely dominate a game with his size, strength and versatility. He was the reason Michigan made the Championship Game last season. They’ve brought him along slowly but he’s averaging just short of a double-double (9.7 points and 8.9 rebounds) and this week is really the first time Michigan has had an opportunity to integrate him into the offense with multiple practices in a row.

Speaking of making things better, the losses of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. is going to be hard for any program to absorb. But it seems to be – considering expectations – that maybe Glenn Robinson III really misses these guys. You wrote some about it this week but tell us about how his season is going and what you expect of this kid?

Robinson misses Trey Burke – a lot. Probably more than Mitch Mcgary even. Robinson is one of the best finishers in college basketball due to not just his ridiculous athleticism but also his ability to drift into space along the baseline and get out and run in transition. Trey Burke through him dozens of assists last year and he’s not getting as many open looks from freshman point guard Derrick Walton.

Those looks will come in time, but many expected Robinson’s game to blossom without Burke and Hardaway in the lineup. Last year Robinson rarely drove to the hole in isolation situations or ran high pick-and-rolls – he was a finisher not a creator. The hope was that his ability to create offense would take a huge step forward but through nine games it certainly hasn’t. Robinson has a somewhat deferential personality and he just hasn’t taken the next step (yet) this season.

A big part of a Beilein offense is the three-pointer. This season the Wolverines are shooting 40.7% of their shots from out there and connecting on 38.6% of them. Solid work. Now one surefire way to knock off Arizona is to hit from deep. Who do the Cats keep an eye on? Is it just the Stauskas show (58.5% of shots from three, 50% 3FG%, this)?

Michigan is always going to shoot a lot of threes and this year is no exception. This year’s team doesn’t play nearly as efficient offensive basketball as last year’s group (losing the Player of the Year will do that) but they still have plenty of perimeter weapons.

Nik Stauskas is a knock down shooter with significant range. As you mentioned, he’s shooting 50% from long range but the joke among Michigan fans is that Stauskas “isn’t just a shooter”. Announcers love to drop that line and it’s completely true. You have to close out hard on Stauskas and he has the driving ability, size and athleticism to drive to the hole and finish at the rim. Stauskas’s free throw numbers are way up (he’s attempting 69.5 free throws per 100 field goal attempts) and he’s a capable finisher inside as well.

Caris LeVert has improved his jumpshot significantly but is slumping while both of Michigan’s point guards, Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht, are both capable of knocking down open jumpers. The other guy to watch right now is 6-foot-6 freshman Zak Irvin. Irvin started slow this year but has hit 10 of his last 18 long range shots

Speaking of being a predominantly jump shooting team, the new rules changes. Michigan has a low FTA/FGA ratio 34% (293rd in the nation). They also shoot at the rim just 23% of the time (343rd in the nation). Do you see this becoming an issue or disadvantage with the rules changes and/or as the season progresses?

I’m not sure Michigan needs to get to the line more often. It would be nice but last year’s group was the most efficient offense in the country and ranked 329th in free throw rate.

They do need to do a better job of getting to the rim though because they are lacking some of the easy production that last year’s group got. Michigan’s point guards are much better at driving and kicking rather than driving and finding an option at the basket. Michigan also lost one of the best ball screen players around in Trey Burke and that’s taken away some of the production from the big men as well.

John Beilein isn’t going to make any drastic change in offensive philosophy but when his offense is working well, there are easy baskets at the rim.

Let’s try on a scenario question: Stauskas at the line for two free throws with 0:03 remaining and the Wolverines down a deuce. He sinks the first. Miller calls timeout and in Beilein’s huddle – where we now turn this into a pick your own adventure – does he A) Sink the second FT, take the extra point and send it to OT or B) Intentional miss and O board, go for two and the win?

While I would have gone for two on the football field against Ohio State, the obvious answer here is to make the free throw.

Ok, ok, joking aside, last season the Wolverines were third in the nation in points scored out of a timeout. Was Chris Webber just ahead of his time? (Side note: The footage of him walking down the tunnel after that game is the most heartbreaking stuff. Check out 30 for 30: The Fab Five if you haven’t)

Michigan has been great in dead ball situations again this year and there are very few people that will question John Beilein’s offensive coaching abilities. Even with young teams, Michigan executes out of timeouts, sideline and baseline out of bounds situations.

Ok now seriously, joking aside, in the last twelve months, Arizona has beaten Tommy Amaker once and Steve Fisher twice, how great of a coach is John Beilein? (token link to Bill Frieder v. Lute Olson commercial series)

Beilein is a great story, having worked his way up from Erie Community College to the Final Four last season – always as a head coach. He’s finally started to recruit and develop NBA talent and that’s paying off with a few very strong seasons. Beilein replaced Amaker at Michigan and did what Tommy couldn’t do (make the NCAA tournament) and whole lot more (Final Four, Big Ten Championship).

There’s been so much talk about the rules changes and the increase in Free Throw rate. Beilein teams are good at limiting a team from getting to the FT line, however. Tell me about Michigan as a defensive unit.

Michigan is very good defensively at not being whistled for fouls and ranked first in defensive free throw rate last season and third this year. The one element that has really hurt the Wolverines is the new block-charge guidelines. Michigan doesn’t have many great shot blockers and has relied on the charge quite a bit in recent seasons. The number of charges that the Wolverines have taken is definitely down by a wide margin this season.

Immovable object meet unstoppable force. Arizona’s strength lies in its front court. They get 40.6% of their shots at the rim which is actually a little better than average (38.3%) but they connect at a higher than average FG% (74.3% good for 9th in that nation). Michigan’s defense, meanwhile, limits opponents to just 18.2% of their shots at the rim (2nd best in the country). Explain to me how Michigan accomplishes this and how this “matchup” plays out?

That’s an interesting stat because Michigan isn’t really a great shot-blocking team and its two-point defense is just average. You should notice that Michigan doesn’t defend the looks at the rim very well (allowing 66.3%) and the low ratio may have something to do with the schedule.

Michigan plays a small lineup with Glenn Robinson III at the four position and watching them you wouldn’t necessarily think they would play strong interior defense. I would think interior scoring will be an Arizona advantage but Michigan’s big men have graded out fairly well defensively this year so could surprise.

If I hadn’t made it clear, I’ll be in attendance, what should I do in Ann Arbor? What can I expect from the Crisler Center and my re-living of a true college experience (I went to UCSD  which has zero semblance of school spirit. This is our mascot – Ariel’s dad from The Little Mermaid)? Suggestions? I’ve heard Zingerman’s and Rick’s

Zingerman’s is great but Maize and Blue Deli isn’t very far behind. Rick’s is a great late night spot after a long night of shenanigans but check out Ashley’s if you are interested in trying some different beers. Try to stop at Benny’s for breakfast if you get the chance

What happens Saturday at noon?

This is a game that Michigan really needs and with a chance to finally play a marquee opponent at home I think the Wolverines take care of business.

Can I buy you a beer?

Of course, I’ll never say no to that offer!

Sean Miller is Ranked #1 for the First Time

On March 13, 2003, Sean Miller was an assistant coach for the Xavier Musketeers. They were a good team, finishing 26-6 and reaching the second round as a three seed. Soon thereafter Miller became the lead man at Xavier and would continue that success. He’d win 120 games as the head coach there, attend four NCAA tournaments, one sweet sixteen, one elite eight, and win two conference championships. On the week of December 5, 2006, a Miller-coached team cracked their first AP Top-25. His Musketeers were ranked 24th that week. And amongst all of his success, the highest ranking he would achieve at Xavier was seventh.

This morning Sean Miller woke up. He wore his cardinal and navy to work, the colors of a Wildcat and the colors of Lute Olson’s basketball program. It’s a program Miller has made clear is not his own. It’s a brand he’s propagating. He’s also made it clear that he is building his own legacy; an integral fact to the success of any endeavor.

So when Monday’s polls dropped and the first name cited was “Arizona,” it wasn’t news to the cardinal and navy. March 13, 2003 was the last time Arizona wore the wee number. This school has worn that number six times prior and once after the final buzzer. Number one is not new to Arizona. Read a lovely history of the lonely number and Arizona here.

But it’s new to this regime. It’s new to a generation of Wildcats – this player’s program – that has bellied up to the bar and bought extinction a drink only to sober up just soon enough to realize the mistake. This number may be impermanent but it’s here, being worn by your Arizona Wildcats, and it’s Sean Miller’s first time as top dog.

So let’s watch him.

See him in his new skin as the hunted. As I said after his team defeated Duke, this is a different monster he has created. The seven to eight guys he’s running out there each night are the seven to eight guys he’s dreamt of since taking this job. It’s the seven to eight guys that are generating hype and hyperbole like ‘Is this the greatest Arizona team ever?’ And maybe it is? I can’t tell you definitely yes or no and neither can you.

But I can tell you that on Saturday afternoon, with what seemed like #1 all but locked up, the Wildcats struggled. For the first time this season they saw their two best players struggle. Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson – the rocks of this lineup – would combine to go 6-25 on the whitened afternoon. Arizona yielded 42 points on 64% shooting in the first half to a UNLV team that arrived in Tucson with nothing to lose. Whatever they had was lost to Dixie State and so Roscoe Smith – who’d already stolen Arizona cookies in 2011 as a member of the UConn Huskies – had no qualms in running his mouth at the favorites, “They should be intimidated by us.” He’d finish with 10 points and 6 rebounds. He previously was averaging 13 and 16.

But in their first half as the presumed best, Arizona looked their worst. The stadium was monochromatic for reasons unknown (tired of that gimmick) and the roster, coaches, and stadium were stewing on three days of hype. How was Miller, at the helm of a ship navigating new waters, going to handle all of this?

What would his team do next?

Because to date, he’s been teaching what he’s always taught: how to be a very good basketball team. For four seasons now in the desert we’ve enjoyed just that and been quite pleased with Miller’s teams, his conduct, and his program. He did the same at Xavier. He’s coached many good teams in many different jerseys and earned himself the distinction of being a very good basketball coach. He coaches good teams.

Now he has the best team. More realistically than any good team of his before this, he has a team vying for hats and t-shirts. Unchartered territory.

Have you ever heard of coaches running that drill where their team practices cutting down the nets? They’ll set up ladders, grab the office scissors, and player-by-player hike up there to cut down the nets. Champs. Practice like you play and if you practice like the last man standing, well the thought is pretty soon you will be.

So for now, Arizona and their coach will practice being the best team in the country. It’s a distinction they’d indubitably prefer to wear in April but for now it works. You’re damn right it works. Because you can’t get to where you want to be unless you know what it looks like.

“Being No. 1 is not our end goal but I think when you’re playing with that thought in mind, practices matter, how you play matters … everything we do takes on even more added importance because you’re trying for, in a sense, rarified air to be the No. 1 team in the nation,” said Miller.

But here’s the thing: this group doesn’t know what it looks like. Anything approaching the top spot is news and so with Arizona struggling, yielding all that they did in Saturday’s first twenty minutes, rankings were the least of anyone’s concerns. And then something happened: defense. This team defended its way to victory, allowing just sixteen second-half points; one basket in the final six-minutes. For the game they outrebounded UNLV, 41-29, and collected 44 points in the paint when nothing would fall from distance. The Wildcats collected themselves and went with their strengths. They won the game.

So maybe this is what it looks like? How it feels and what it might be like?

Today, Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats are the best team in America.

What will his team do next?

BB: Arizona beats Duke for NIT Title

Jabari Parker was the best player on the floor with Rodney Hood close behind. And that’s the extent to which we will talk about Duke in this column. We don’t need to discuss their strengths or weaknesses, the makeup of their roster, or the Hall of Fame coach at their helm.

Because when vying for a championship, when the sights are set on AT&T Stadium in Dallas for a Monday night showdown, it doesn’t always matter who the best player is. Games are won by the collective effort of those dressed alike and what Arizona proved to us during their time in New York City was that their collective is going to be better than any individual. And could very well be better than any team.

Again, this isn’t about Duke because Arizona beat them without needing a perfect game. Sure they leaned on some moments but when push came to shove – and it always does – Arizona was the better team. When it came to a 19-point deficit against a hotter-than-a-Dragon’s-breath Drexel team, the Wildcats responded. Not with the efforts of one, but with anyone wearing a white jersey. Aaron Gordon had this to say to ESPN’s Andy Katz following the win:

“I’m the glue guy on a team that has talent,” Gordon said. “You can stick me in the middle of all these pieces and we have all the potential in the world.”

That’s coming from the rumored star. The prodigal one-and-done who’s declaring that his curtails won’t be rode to Dallas but that you’ve gotta mess with the whole damn lot of them.

Let’s roll things back 12-months with Billy Donovan’s Gators were headed to Tucson. It was a colossal game – particularly within the context of Arizona’s recent basketball history – that the Wildcats would win. But did it really feel monumental? Could you revisit that game, talk about it with a friend and think, “Wow, this Arizona team has got it.” Please don’t get me wrong here, I enjoyed watching that game as much as the next guy. My neighbors could hear the screams through the walls. But we couldn’t walk away sensing that Arizona was necessarily better than Florida – or anyone else for that matter. Frankly, the Gators outplayed the Wildcats for everything but the critical moments. The national dialogue – despite Arizona eventually running out to a 14-0 record with that nice RPI win – became such that the Wildcats were a good team who’d won a few ball games and would come back down to earth. That Florida perhaps dribbled one too many balls off their feet and Arizona hadn’t necessarily beat the Gators so much as outlasted them. There was a feeling of overachievement.

After defeating Duke, things feel different.

As the game was closing down to it’s final moments, with things slipping away from the Blue Devils and Arizona playing to its strengths, time seemed to slow as Kaleb Tarczewski set a nonchalant screen into the back of an unsuspecting Blue Devil. You could see the play developing from Tucson as TJ McConnell lofted the ball to the far side of the rim from 30 feet away. Rising to put the ball through the hoop was Aaron Gordon who emphatically did so. It was the Wildcats 17th assist on their 22nd made basket.

It wasn’t Mark Lyons off balance or Solomon Hill with a late steal. It wasn’t Brendan Lavender for 18 or a Derrick Williams block. It was an executed team play – repeatable and effective – for the Arizona win.

Tell me, how does that feel?

And this:

 

Arizona Prep Stars aren’t always good, but when they are…

The state of Arizona has not produced a wealth of basketball talent. Just 19 NBA players prepped in the Grand Canyon State, Greg Smith the most recent and Sean Elliott the most successful. Mike Bibby, born in Phoenix and attended HS at Shadow Mountain, played the most NBA games of any Zonie, 1001. Arizona produced pros have played 125 cumulative seasons in The League. Comparatively, The Palmetto State (South Carolina) has produced 21 pros playing 170 seasons. Two additional pros, 45 mores seasons. By that sophomoric arithmetic, Arizonans generally aren’t that great of hoopsters. Those nineteen pros rank just 35th in America, ahead of Utah’s 17 (Shawn Bradley!) and behind the aforementioned 21 from SC (Jesus Shuttlesworth) and West Virginia (Logo).

So when players from the state move on to play Division 1 basketball, it’s a significant accomplishment. And when players in the state start scoring 40 points in a game or flirting with triple doubles, we’re on to something special.

Something special is what former Phoenix-area prep stars Jahii Carson and Nick Johnson are doing. Hailing from the same state as me, they chose to compete for rival universities and they’re currently crushing the college basketball scene.

*WITH A KISS* [Raftery voice]

*WITH A KISS* [Raftery voice]

Let’s start with Carson, the riquickulous one, who almost single handedly defeated the Runnin’ Rebels Tuesday night. He scored 40 points and dished 7 assists. He played 39 minutes and in case you needed a refresher, college basketball games are 40 minutes long. He shot 64% afield and bucketed 1.02 points per minute. He’s a measly 5’10” and made 14 of his sixteen shots AT THE RIM. Do you realize that UNLV has blocked the ninth most shots in the nation (30)? That their 7.5 blocks per game rank fifteenth nationally? The Rebels saw Carson driving the lane and they were licking their chops, ready to put Carson’s shot into XS. Instead, they’re licking their wounds as Carson tear dropped his way – and how beautiful a shot is that floater? – to 40 points and the Devil’s first 5-0 start since Arizona was one year into 27 consecutive NCAA tournaments. What Carson has done in Tempe is nothing short of angelic. On this, his farewell tour, Carson is about to make sure we won’t soon forget his name. He’ll be remembered in the same breath as Fat Lever, Eddie House, and James Harden.

But like Lever before him, he’ll be special because of his Arizona ties. Lever prepped in Tucson, at Pueblo High School. The same HS I never lost to as a starting baseball player and where I got a 4 on a botched administration of the AP Spanish test (though honestly it could’ve been a 3). He’s a legend in the state.

And while Nick Johnson spent a portion of his prep years at Findlay in Las Vegas, make no mistake that he has strong ties as an Arizonan. His father is Joe Johnson who famously held the world record for dunking on the highest rim (11’7”) and attended ASU. Nick grew up in Gilbert before honing his skills at prep school. He now finds himself the centerpiece of a Final Four contender. His role, a changing one according to Sean Miller, is to be the leader of that team. High stakes for anyone, let alone an Arizona prep star. Allow me some other names who’ve held similar roles: Mike Bibby, Sean Elliott, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson. Just one of those players never attended a Final Four (Frye) and we’re not going to talk about it. Every one of them was a lottery pick. That’s the sort of rare and special territory Johnson now finds himself in.

On Tuesday night, Johnson continued his onslaught of Arizona’s non-conference slate. And while it’s not been the most impressive competition, Johnson has been the Wildcats’ rock. Though it’s really too early to try and quantify his season, I’ll qualify it by citing his 23 points inside a raucous and hostile Viejas Arena. Early in the game Johnson squared up and hit a deep three pointer. Across most possessions, this might have been considered ill advised. But I thought it served as a message to his team. That it was OK for them to compete and that he had their backs. Sure the bucket may have come well before the first media timeout, but it resonated across his bench: Game on.

That’s Johnson’s new role, while Carson’s remains about the same: to be really damn good. They’re both fine ball players who grew up playing with and against one another. As the adage goes, you’ve got to play the best to be the best. Today they find that they’re the best after years of Middle school, playground, AAU, high school, and now college competition. Challenging one another to get better and better.

NickJohnsonSDSU

Follow me, boys

And that drive and competition has perhaps left something of a legacy. Jaron Hopkins out of Dobson High (2013) garnered big offers before winding up at Tad boyle’s blossoming program in Boulder. Michael Humphrey’s (Sunnyslope, #80 2014) is a big out of PHX and is headed to Stanford with fellow Zonie, Dorian Pickins (Pinnacle, 2014). Meanwhile, Zylan Cheatham (South Mountain, #68 2014) is headed to SDSU.

But that’s the future and we can keep an eye on that for another time.

For now, let’s enjoy what Johnson and Carson are doing. It doesn’t happen often.

Arizona on the break, Oregon Transfers, Pace

We prognosticated and assumed and ran with things that coaches or scouts told us before the season started. That’s well and good but now’s the time to begin the accountability train. Let’s take a look at a few thoughts I (we?) want to keep an eye on as the season progresses and what we’re learning about them.

Arizona in transition –

All the pre-season long we’ve glowed about Arizona’s need and ability to get out into transition. That they’d struggle from distance but that the team’s true strength came in the form of defensive length and  versatility which would lead to easy transition buckets. #LOBPUEBLO. So I took to hoop-math.com, paid the more-than-worth-it-$15 subscription to discover that Arizona ranks 117th in % of total FGA in transition. That seemed low. They’re getting just 21% of their shots in transition. The Cats are, however, pretty damn efficient at these buckets, dropping a 73.4% eFG (16th in the nation). #LOBPUEBLO. Anecdotally, Arizona sure seemed to get into transition last night against Fairleigh Dickinson in the most lopsided Wildcat win since Arizona’s coach had white hair – and was a good. Against FDU, the Wildcats took 26.5% of their shots (18) in transition, or slightly above the D-1 average. NOTE: This is not cause for concern. It’s just a notice that perhaps Arizona’s strength isn’t necessarily in transition. Or it isn’t their happy place or primary means of points. Whatever the case, Arizona seems to be effectively using its size, taking just 22% of their shots from beyond the arc and have the 14th best offensive rebounding percentage.

The pace of play in Westwood and Tempe –

Steve Alford’s Bruins have jumped out to a blistering 72.8 possessions per game. That’s 57th best in the nation and the fastest UCLA team since Bruins Nation on the Alford hiring. For further context, only Howland’s last team outpaced the rest of the nation; playing 3.6 more possessions than the average D-1 team. Every other Howland season played below the D-1 average pace including his best team, 2008, which operated at 65.6 vs. 67. We all knew he was slow and many complained that Alford was too despite a UCLA coaching hunt for a “different style.” Thus far – and I’m acutely aware of the infancy of this season – Steve’s baby blue baby bears are burnin’ the floor and Kyle Anderson is comfortable at the point.

Meanwhile, in the land of Herb, he’s been talking about picking up the pace since he had back-to-back seasons without reaching the teens in wins. Last season was really the beginning of it but did you know the Sun Devils were only average in the tempo department? The 2013 D-1 average was 65.9 while the Herbivores got 65.8 possessions. But improvement – increased pace in this case – is relative to the Herb system, right? Let’s look. In his previous six Tempe seasons, the Sen Devils put up an average tempo of 61.9. In 2013 they jumped that number by 6% to get to the Jahii-led, blistering tempo of 65.8. That’s significant and this year they’ve upped the anti to 71.2 possessions. Perhaps Herb’s 3-12-24 is working?

Assimilation of the transfer Duck –

Points Rebounds Assists ORtg %Poss %Shots
Mike Moser 20.5 6 3 143.1 21.6 32.7
Joseph Young 30 5.5 1.5 156.3 26.3 26.8
Jason Calliste 10.5 2.5 3.5 131.9 17.9 11.9

Next subject.

BB: Stanley Johnson picks Arizona

Last night SDSU was beat on the same court  that Arizona won the 1997 national championship. I plastered this across chat boxes all the Thursday morning long and you can read about it at the bottom of this page. If you don’t read that then let me tell you that the playing surface at Viejas Arena is the same one used at the ’97 NCAA Final Four. In case you need a refresher, Arizona won that title. I reminded my friends, “HOLY NAPOLEON COMPLEX. You can’t script this stuff!”

But when I told a third party – a non-Wildcat with no emotional ties to what happened inside the late RCA Dome of Indianapolis in 1997 – I came to realize that the late-90’s was a lifetime ago. Seriously, someone born that year is driving today. A motor vehicle. And the Champions Classic so gloriously hosted on Tuesday didn’t bother to invite Arizona because Mike Bibby.

Arizona has been a terrific basketball school. They’ve danced on par with the elite and they’ve tasted success on an annual basis that few have. But the 1997 title was a long time ago. Much has transpired in the Old Pueblo since I watched the basketball team address fans in the football stadium on a spring afternoon. That was a glorious day and beautiful times.

But that third party highlighted for me that ’97 is approaching a generation ago. Do they snap chat? Arizona was uncomfortably close to being the snap chat of elite basketball programs: a flash genius and gone for eternity. But Sean Miller said yes to Jim Livengood’s pleas.

(And quick aside while we’re on this snap chat analogy. If you’re reading this blog then we are friends and as a friend I encourage you to say ‘yes’ to any offer that ends in billion.)

And so too has Stanley Johnson.

The athletic, competitive, strong, skilled, tough talent out of Mater Dei has declared himself a Wildcat. He joins an already sound 2014 class of Craig Victor and Parker Jackson Cartwright with more on the way. By just about every standard, he’s league bound. A game changer on the scale of Mater Deis before him:

Simon Says

Simon Says

Because that’s why players come to Arizona. It’s why Miller did and what Simon said is the reason you play the game. For two media days now I’ve sat and watched coach after coach, player after player effuse about their forthcoming season. Only Miller and his travel partners (Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson) have used the word “championship.”

The Wildcats are in the midst of a season with the potential to stand on a ladder with scissors, have a Jim Nantz pun thrown at us, and later visit the Obamas. 1997 was a long time ago but it’s imagery is as real as ever. It’s the banner Stanley Johnson and every other kid that’s agreed to Sean was sold on.

When the Aztecs cut last night’s lead to four, with The Show and the rest of Viejas swelling, Aaron Gordon absorbed the harm and dunked. Seats were re-acquired or exited. It was the kind of moment that suggests a team is built for big things. The kind of team and program Stanley Johnson wants to be a part. And wants to build.

Hats and t-shirts.

Basketball games in football stadiums.

Interview with an Aztec: Previewing SDSU

The sixth ranked Wildcats head to the arena formerly known as Cox tonight. They’ll give just one point in taking the court against a team, SDSU, who has beaten them in two of their previous three encounters. Does Fish have Sean’s number? I’m not sure but I’m trying to get to the bottom of all things SDSU – a school with which I shared a city whilst a collegian. I’ve attended a game @SDSU and it was hilariously fun. I don’t usually preview games but when I do, I want it from the horse’s mouth and so I’ve grabbed co-worker, friend, and SDSU alum, Steve McDevitt, about his alma mater. After all, today is his birthday.

Now it’s worth noting that Steve recently became Poppa McD (otherwise known as “dad”) to the handsome and jet setting, Logan. He tells you about their adventures, misadventures, and beer on his blog, Pampers N Pints. And now he he answers my inquiries about SDSU hoops:

On a scale of one-to-there’s-a-statue-of-him-outside-of-Pauley-Pavilion, how much does Steve Fisher look like John Wooden?

If Wooden, Fisher, and Lou Holtz were all starring in a the same soft core porn, no way you could tell any of them apart. Hey, c’mon, everyone has fetish, right? I did, however, meet Fish a couple of times (porn unrelated). He used to come in to the cell phone shop I worked at and he’s a super nice guy. He turned the program around and probably had much better offers but stuck with the Aztecs. But hey, if you’re getting porn offers and living in San Diego, would you leave?

WoodenFisher

Toss up.

Were you ever a part of The Show and are you proud of The Show?

The only show unfortunately on in my house these days involves catty, orange debutantes donning seven pounds of makeup and more extensions than the Geico claims department. I’m going to have to phone a friend here, Regis, and bring Aztec aficionado and starting power forward of my wedding party, Tony Busalacchi.

This is the part where we introduce you to Tony with an anecdote from him on his fandom:

Best story I have is I went to the Spurs vs Kings game when Jimmer and Kawhi faced off for the first time in the NBA,  Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi were on the Spurs.  I yelled at Malcolm across the court and yelled Aztec4life and pointed at my SDSU shirt.  Malcolm pointed my way and gave me a nod.   There really is a special bond between the players, students, & Aztec die hards that have witnessed a team that only won 3 games in Fisher’s first year to consistently being one of the top teams out West.
So basically I’ll be interviewing Steve and an Aztec fan from here out. “T” represents Tony. “S” represents Steve. Genius.
So to you, Tony, your thoughts on The Show?
T: I used to sit with The Show back in 2000-2001 when it was just a few members, but I was never a part of The Show.  I remember heckling Bobby Knight when he was the coach of Texas Tech and got him to look my way with a mean stare.  I  personally love the creativity of The Show. They are the original creators of the big heads. They truly intimidate visiting teams and do a great job getting under their skin.  The show also does a great job getting the rest of the fans into the game and developing a great home court advantage for the Aztecs.

Moving on to actual round ball, Jamaal Franklin sure was good, so good in-fact I read he was the only D-1 player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. How are the Aztecs going to replace that production, along with that of Chase Tapley and DeShawn Stephens? This is otherwise known as the what is SDSU good at question.

S: Tony…

T: Last year Maal was Mr everything for the Aztecs.  Tap was just  plain clutch. Early on will be a challenge as the team develops an identity.  As the year goes on, I feel we will be much more balanced and in fact have a better year even though we lost some key players.

I read somewhere that Josh Davis is basically Kawhi Leonard. Is Josh Davis an NBA runner-up?

S: I think I went to middle school with a guy named Josh Davis. Really great four-square player.

T:  Josh Davis does play like Kawhi & actually looks like him also.  He is a tenacious rebounder, freakishly athletic, & has a nose for the ball.  Josh will create his own legacy before the year is over

How awesome was The Beachcomber’s Thursday night, $1 You-call-its in college?

S: I don’t remember so… yeah… it was pretty awesome.

Is Arizona-SDSU a rivalry?

S: Back in 2004 or so, Arizona visited SDSU and we discovered that we could buy $3 student tickets and sell them to Arizona fans for $125 a pop. Rivalry? Not so much as we were gladly taking 800% better than our Jamba Juice salary. Although a battle between an Aztec warrior and a Wildcat might be a good match in the wild, so yes, I’d say it is a rivalry after all.

T:  I think AZ vs SDSU is going to become one of the best rivalries on the West Coast.  These are going to be THE two premier teams out West for years to come.  Shepard will be a breakout player for us this year.

/END TRANSCRIPT

Well that’s going to do it. Thank you Steve and thanks for jumping in Tony. Vegas says it’s going to be a ball game. I think we’ve got two teams that match wildly similarly: defensively oriented with a knack for rebounds. The x-factor could boil down to guard play where Arizona has an advantage with McConnell and Johnson above senior and WSU transfer, Xavier Thames. But here’s one additional thought: As both teams tout their strengths in the front court, this game could boil down to a power of wills. Strength vs. strength. Such match-ups often turn into epic games (see: 68-67, Arizona in Maui last year, also see below). As Tony mentioned, 6’8″ Winston Shepard is poised for a big year. The Aztecs are going to out-size many opponents and that will bode well for them in the MWC. This is the Pac-12 and Arizona has an NBA-esque front court that will gladly bang with the Aztecs (KALEB WANT CONTACT).

Worth noting: there’s a rostered SDSU player who’s last name is U’u and I think The Show is trolling at its best/worst/core.

HI, ANGELO!

Getting to know Arizona: For one reason

Sean Miller sat at a table next to Jim Livengood, his wife, and his three children. Set up in the middle of the McKale floor, the former AD spoke effusively about his newest hire before turning the mic over to the native Pennsylvanian. Miller thanked Coach Olson before saying anything to anyone about anything else. He too would speak effusively about the program he was inheriting and the legacy he would work to carry on. Hours earlier, at a similar press conference with a less celebratory mood, Miller was asked about his decision to become the next head coach at the University of Arizona, “I would never leave Xavier unless it was a place that I really felt you could win a national championship.” He’d go on to lead his first Wildcat team to a 16-15 record. The first Arizona team since 1984 not invited to the NCAA tournament. Xavier would attend their third consecutive sweet sixteen. That was 2009 and this is 2013. Four years removed from that press table on the McKale floor, Sean Miller will unveil his best team yet. His best chance yet to affirm that April 7th decision.

Why I love them: Arizona is going to be so outrageously good. It’s wild that Gordon gets the majority of eyeballs (yet understandable) and if you’re writing a 1000 word column on the Cats, he’s taking up 40% of it. Respect. But in a singular blurb entitled “Why I love my favorite team of all-time on my own blog so you’re going to have to deal with all of my biases and Kool Aid drinking because it’s mine all mine” I’ll gladly talk about the other kids:

  • Brandon Ashley was AG before AG.
  • TJ McConnell was a top five theft before bailing on small ball for the big boys. A defense and pass first PG in a SM system? Yes please. Did you know a former coach said TJ was the best player on Arizona’s practice floor last year? Do you know who that former coach was? Luther Olson.
  • Nick Johnson made exponential improvements from FR to SO season. That’s a somewhat expected improvement; a standard time to leap ahead. But the greatest leap he made was fully understanding and embracing his role as a lock down defender. You see what he did down the stretch? Dinwiddie, LD2, Ian Clark, Wesley Saunders, Craft? Zipperhead nada. Lock down. And now he’s got a partner in crime (see above) (and below)
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson compares more favorably to Andre Iguodala than AG compares to Blake Griffin. 6’7″ with a 7’1″ wingspan, when translated into hoop, means: NIET. As in NIET anyone is getting by him. StealsOnblocksOndeflections.

Quick break here because I’m exhausted and can’t even wrap my mind around who to write about next. I literally have an elevated heart rate right now because I got anxious I’d forget to mention someone.

  • Kaleb Tarczewski is a seven footer who dropped 6/6 a season ago. Kinda meh, ho hum, but if you were privy to the report my boy James whipped up a year ago regarding top-50 big men recruits, it’s about par for the course. You know where the majority of those top-50 big men who average about 6/6 in their freshman campaign wind up? Lotteries.
  • Once there was this frail point guard I interviewed. He went on to surprise people as a freshmen and disappoint them in the subsequent two years. But he’s a senior now. He’s seen this and he’s experience that (and by that I mean an elite eight, ever been?). He’s Jordin Mayes and he’s going to surprise you because iced veins were meant for March.

And that’ll cover it for now. I didn’t get to the defensive collective of this group or the possibility of instant offense from a guy like Gabe York. Zach Peters is like a Wear twin who won’t ever have to be featured (that’s what the Wears were supposed to be). Yet the Wildcats aren’t even allowing Peters to play. Just try and come at me with the shooting stuff.

Oh, and there’s that Miller guy.

Why I hate them: I don’t. Can’t. Won’t ever. Bear down.

Stat you need to know:

35.8

Percentage from three point distance opponents shot against the Wildcats last season, the second highest such percentage a Sean Miller team has ever yielded. Aside from his first ever season, no other SM team allowed opponents to shoot better than 33%. His worst ever ranking (the bookends aside) was 85th. My point here is that last year appears to be a statistical anomaly in which his defense was lead by not-TJ McConnell. Last season’s eight losses saw AZ opponents shoot 46% from distance. In my book, How to Lose Basketball Games, chapter three is titled “Allow Your Opponent to Shoot >40% from 3FG: And other ways to lose from beyond the arc.”

In their words: Ezra covers Arizona hoops for PointguardU and is a great twitter follow. Do you like sports? Follow Ezra.

There are no more excuses.

With TJ McConnell running the show, an improved and polished front court at his disposal, and Aaron Gordon doing basketball things that only Aaron Gordon can do, justifications will not manage if Arizona does not reach the Promised Land. The talent is too strong and the road to Jerry World is too forthright.

Now that’s not to say the task won’t be daunting. The Wildcats have one of the more challenging out-of-conference schedules in the country – a potential Madison Square Garden match-up with Duke overshadows a trip to Ann Arbor to play the national runner-ups.

And despite being the runaway pick to win the conference, the Pac-12 won’t be a cakewalk as Oregon, UCLA, Cal, and even The School Up North could provide legitimate challenges.
But come March, when Sean Miller’s teams traditionally peak, this one should peak a little bit higher. By then, the chemistry between McConnell and his teammates should be uniquely strong and Arizona will have an inherent advantage against most opponents because its front-court size and talent.

Furthermore, if the Wildcats earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, their path to the Final Four will presumably never stray from the comforts of Southern California and its rich base of UofA alums.

It’s year five of the Sean Miller Era and patience is becoming less of a virtue and more of a commodity It’s time for expectations to become reality.

Quotable:

“They’ve got about 75 pros on their team.” – Lorenzo Romar on why Arizona is the Pac-12 favorite

“But who in their right mind would think that Gordon will bring the ball up against Duke in the Final Four, cross over Jabari Parker, spin off of Rodney Hood, and dunk so hard on Rasheed Sulaimon that Sulaimon gets a concussion? (Arizona fans just scanned the room for something to put on their laps to hide their collective erection.)” – Mark Titus

Outlook: I have sunglasses on right now and it’s not the hangover. No the future is so bright I’m wearing shades and it’s taking all I’ve got to not talk about hotels and things to do in Dallas. What’s it like there in early April? Alas, there’s entire slate of basketball to be played and games to be won. None of this is going to be easy for the Wildcats but they’ve positioned themselves to make it look so. Their schedule is great – I’m attending as much of it as I can – and everything I mentioned above. Detractors, critics, and realists will mention Arizona’s unproven outside shooting. They have a point. But the greater point on that front is that if Arizona is grossly reliant on its shooting they’ve got bigger problems. If the offense isn’t running through someone named Aaron, Kaleb, or Brandon: issues. Furthermore, Arizona is going to get its buckets in transition. Defense will be their signature. I imagine a lot of run stopping timeouts from opposing benches (20-4 run, etc.).

We’re one week away.

He touched the ball.

Go Cats and here’s to basketball games in football stadiums.

Bear down.

Football: A Failed Billboard and the Starting Lineup

I’m not a football expert but I enjoy the hell out of it. And while I’m barely an expert on most things I know with expert decisiveness that UNLV – Arizona’s opponent tomorrow night – failed with this billboard:

UNLV_BILLBOARD_WX_090413JS_001

If you’re paying attention, this billboard – in a city swarming with billboards – was erected with the likeness of FORMER basketball coach, Lon Kruger, urging fans to “COME TO OUR HOUSE.” Kruger’s house moved to Norman in 2011 and I know of only one other institution capable of this sort of signage blunder. Interim UNLV AD, Tina Kunzer-Murphy, said their marketing department never saw the creative before it went live. The sign is being taken down and Dave Rice – the Rebels’ current coach – thought it was funny. Tina didn’t.

Alas, failed marketing never really hurt a sports team and so when the Wildcats and Rebels take to the field, all eyes will be in Arizona’s backfield to see All-American Ka’Deem Carey Daniel Jenkins. The shifty senior has “earned the start” per head coach Rich Rodriguez and thus we continue to keep a watchful eye on the controversy that is/was Carey’s off-season.

Carey misbehaved and should be punished for such. He’s served publicly – cleaning around campus – and had much of his media access removed or turned off. He sees counselors for anger management. His Heisman campaign does not exist. And now RichRod is punishing him with on-field limitations, suspending him last week against NAU and now giving Jenkins the start; propagating what could have been an issue put behind us.

But so long as Jenkins is producing and Carey is getting touches, one has to believe that this is the final piece to Carey’s disciplining. After all, some of his actions were in the vein of untouchable arrogance (Dude, don’t get escorted out of a college basketball game screaming I’m an All-American. In fact, don’t get escorted from a game, period). RichRod’s UNLV depth chart serves as a slice of humble pie to the All-American talent.

My concern would be that this could cause a rift between Jenkins, Carey, or other players. Starters vs. backups, etc. can be a sensitive subject within the greater context of a locker room. Rodriguez doesn’t want to drive a stake through what should prove to be his most important offensive assets before the meat of his schedule arrives.

But there’s still a lot of time until that sort of competition arrives, when storylines shift to games named after flowers as opposed to first and second stringers. As is the case in many of these situations, winning erases problems and so the 7:30pm kickoff cannot come soon enough.

As for now, we can focus on the lighter side, like failed billboards, and rest assured that Tucsonans won’t soon see anything featuring the imagery of John Mackovic or Kevin O’Neill.