Ties to Tucson

The Arizona Wildcats Basketball Team continue their winning ways following their successful weekend in SoCal, and each game provided a piece of a championship resume.  Their win at UCLA revealed how much poise this team has when facing adversity. T.J. McConnell appeared just as calm leading the offense when the Cats were down by one in Pauley Pavilion with just a few minutes left as he was when the Cats were leading earlier by double digits.  The Cats followed that win by outplaying an outmatched USC team, particularly down the stretch of the game when it mattered.

As good things keep coming from the Cats, it brings to mind some additional story lines linked to the program.

  • Record Setting Start to Season. The Cats are 17-0, the best start of any team in the history of the school’s basketball program.  They surpassed the 1931-32 team, who started the season with 16 consecutive wins.  As a side note, it was also the first LA sweep for the Cats since the 2004-05 season.  Over this span, the Cats have had a dismal 3-15 record when traveling west on Interstate 10 to play USC and UCLA.
  • Fabulous Freshman.  Almost all national lists of top 5 college freshmen include Aaron Gordon.  He is averaging 12.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per contest for the Cats.  Gordon’s  numbers are not quite on par with Jabari Parker of Duke (19.5 points, 7.6 rebounds) or Julius Randal of Kentucky (16.7 points, 10.9 rebounds), but his trajectory is on path with them.  Both Parker and Randal were seemingly “next level ready” at the start of the 2013-14 season, and Parker is still the best player I have seen this year.  Despite that, Gordon is rapidly approaching that level of consideration.

On this same subject, I would be remiss not to mention two other outstanding freshmen.  Andrew Wiggins of Kansas seemed to be everyone’s preseason number one, but his erratic start cast some question on those projections.  His more recent performances are showing signs of expected dominance and his numbers cannot be ignored, scoring 15.7 and nabbing 5.4 rebounds per game.  I would not be surprised if by season’s end, Aaron Gordon moves above Wiggins on projected draft lists for the NBA.

The only meteoric star not on everyone’s radar before the season was Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis.  He is turning heads, much the way Derrick Rose did six years ago while playing for the University of Memphis.  Ennis is averaging 11.6 points, 5.7 assists and 2.6 steals.  His turnover-to-assist ratio is in the top 3 in the nation.  Comparatively speaking, Rose averaged 14.9 points, 4.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game in his one season with the Memphis Tigers.

  • Recruiting Bonanza. Next year’s entering class for the Cats has been ranked in the Top 10 of the country.  The marquee player is Stanley Johnson of Mater Dei High School in California.  Every ranking out there lists Johnson in the top 3 of next year’s entering class.  Another focal point will be power forward Craig Victor of Findlay Prep in Vegas.  He is considered by many to be in the top 25 of college recruits for next season.  When he played in a tournament here in the Valley a few weeks ago against local perennial powerhouse Pinnacle High School, he appeared to be a man among boys on the court.  The only question that came to mind watching him play is whether he can be consistent in his on-the-court effort.  I felt as if he took some plays off, but I hope that is just a function of not being challenged at this level.

Johnson and Victor will certainly fill a void if Aaron Gordon is “one and done.”   They will be joined by shooting guard Kadeem Allen and point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright (ranked near the top 50 of incoming college recruits) to round out a loaded 2014 recruiting class.

While anticipating the prowess of next year’s class, the Cats got off to a great start for the recruiting class of 2015.  Word has come down that 6’4″ guard Tyler Dorsey out of the LA area has committed to be part of the Cats backcourt of the future, passing on offers from Duke and Kentucky, among others.  Dorsey can shoot, plain and simple.  He can also play point, if needed.  He has been ranked nationally in the top 5 of the incoming class of 2015.  Dorsey will be part of the successor group to TJ McConnell, Nick Johnson and Gabe York.

  • Still a Hometown Favorite–  The hearts of almost all of the U of A faithful will always have a place reserved for former player and former assistant coach, Josh Pastner.  The head coach of the Memphis Tigers of the American Athletic Conference has them playing great team basketball.  Since being named head coach, he has complied an overall record of 117-37, which is above a .750 winning percentage.  As of mid-January, Pastner has this year’s 12-3 Tigers ranked 17th in the nation, coming off a six-point victory over Rick Pitino’s 12th ranked Louisville, the first for Memphis against Louisville since the 2004-05 season.  Pastner’s squad also has a victory against Oklahoma State (ranked 9th in the latest polls but ranked #5 at the time of the Memphis victory).  So long as Pastner remains at the helm, Tucsonans and U of A loyalists will identify Memphis not as the as the home of Elvis’ Graceland, but as Josh Pastner’s turf.
  • March Madness for ASU. At this point in the season, ASU has compiled a decent body of work.  Following their road trip to LA, the Devils are 13-4 (2-2 in conference play).  They have notable victories over UNLV, Marquette and Bradley.  However, their complete meltdown at home against Washington earlier this month is being seen as representative of the true measure of this team. That one loss could require the Devils not only to win remaining games in which they are favored, but also sneak out at least a couple of resume-building victories.  This could be accomplished through wins against nationally-ranked teams such as Oregon or Colorado.  But number one on that list and in the country are the Arizona Wildcats, and a Devil victory this week in Tucson could favorably burst the “bubble-team” label that the Devils appear to be destined to have assigned on Selection Sunday in March.