By Matt Norlander
NEW YORK — If this is supposed to be the Pac-12's third-best team, then the conference needs to prepare for another down year.
Those in the league and fans of it knew this wouldn't be another banner season in the Pac-12, but for as much as No. 15 Arizona has to grow, who knows how much depth -- and more importantly, good basketball -- we're going to see out West. Again.
It goes Washington and Cal, pick whichever you'd like atop the league, then Arizona. And the Wildcats aren't a top-30 team as they are right now. UCLA probably comes next, but it's got its issues to sort out. You think the Bruins or Wildcats are sure-fire reliable teams, worthy of rankings right now? You know they're not.
I'm not saying the Pac-12's only going to send three teams to The Dance this year, but there's a good chance it won't crack four. Arizona could represent the fracture line in this league. And it got outplayed by a muscular, talented and extremely flawed team -- that didn't play incredibly well -- Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Bulldogs won the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, 67-57. But let's keep our focus here on Arizona, which is an overrated team right now (well, maybe not after tonight) that lacks a star and a semblance of what it can be. It will likely get better, but this is not looking like an elite group. It's yet to crack 60 twice already this season; that happened three times total (and came consecutively) last season.
Arizona was held to eight field goals in the second half. It had myriad opportunities to tip the boat against MSU, but "could never get that big shot we needed," Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said, adding, “they had the tempo right where they wanted it."
Miller also said the team has no identity yet (I'd venture about 80 percent of college basketball could say the same right now), but they're building. Losing No. 2 NBA draft pick Derrick Williams will do that to a club. Miller credited Mississippi State. He liked the opportunity and learned more about his team. I think he knows this groups limits. He's got faith, but he didn't push out platitudes like other coaches tend to do once they saunter into the press room and flip to cruise control.
“If you watched us last night, you saw the good of Arizona, what we can be in a positive light," Miller said. "Tonight, you can see what we have to get better at. Playing against a big, physical team, we have to do a better job defensively and playing against a tempo like that — it slowed us down as well.”
Arizona's bigs didn't take control (would you expect them to) against Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney(who had a bad left hand and really didn't do all that much), two players with a high chance of one day being drafted into the NBA.
“They made it harder to score around the rim — but we weren’t aggressive coming out of the start, and they took over from the beginning,” Perry said.
You'd figure Arizona would want to, and later admit, to have some tenacity early on. But it wasn't there. The good news: the Wildcats aren't going to have many foes this season that can offer the type of beef and immovability down low that the Bulldogs employ.
“The biggest thing we had a hard time doing today is getting to the foul line,” Miller said. “Their length and size did a good job keeping us off the line, which is a big part of our offense. It’s the difference in our offense.”
I think the turnaround for the Wildcats was also an issue. The team's not ready to adapt to drastically different teams on back-to-back nights.
“You play against St. John’,” said Miller, “it’s such a frenetic, zone-oriented game. And the next day you’re playing against a slow-tempoed , half-court, tough, man-to-man team. That was a change we didn’t handle well today. ... When the ball got down low, Moultrie was better than our guys."
Here's what Miller's taking from the game -- a loss that should look OK come March. Unless Mississippi State has another implosion, it's going to the NCAA tournament. Arizona got beat, but if it minimizes the losses, this one will look good in comparison to what other top-40 BCS teams have right now.
“At the end of the day, you want to have quality wins and you look back sometimes and say, ‘That was a really good game for us to play,’” Miller said.
One last thing -- I did get Miller one-on-one and wanted him to share what his thoughts on recently embattled freshman guard Josiah Turner were. Here's what he said:
“Josiah’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “With some players it doesn’t always happen in the first three or four weeks of the year. Where are team’s going to be eight weeks from now, or four weeks from now, will have a lot of similarities. He’s going to learn, like all of our freshmen, how to handle the highs and lows of the game.”
Growing process, you know how this time of year goes. Seeing Arizona up close, it looks like there's a lot of growing to do, and it'd be best if we adjusted our perspective on this team -- sort of in the opposite way from last year, when 'Zona took most of us by surprise.Photo: AP