Texas A&M-Arizona score: Wildcats grow up a little with win over No. 7 Aggies
The universe’s order was thrown out of whack a couple of weeks ago in the Bahamas when Arizona, then the No. 2 team in the nation, lost three in a row, to N.C. State, SMU and Purdue at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
These weren’t horrible losses by any stretch of the imagination. This wasn’t ninth-ranked Notre Dame losing to Ball State (which is a result we saw during a wild night of college hoops on Tuesday). But this was Arizona, a team that many thought could be — should be? — Sean Miller’s first Final Four team, a team that many picked to win it all, dropping three straight games to lesser opponents, and doing so in incredibly uninspiring fashion. Their defense was porous, their effort suspect.
After the Caribbean catastrophe, Arizona became the first team in the AP Top 25 poll era to fall from No. 2 to unranked in the span of one week. It was the first time in the past 101 AP polls where a Miller team was unranked.
So as much as a Dec. 5 college basketball game could be considered a must win — to fix Arizona’s confidence and to restore order to the universe — this was it.
And let’s be clear: This wasn’t a performance where Arizona blew Texas A&M out of the water. Far from it. This was the essence of a 50-50 game. But for two questionable calls in the final eight seconds of the game — a traveling call on Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis, then a foul call on Texas A&M as Arizona inbounded the ball with 5.8 seconds left — we’d be talking about Arizona’s fourth loss in its past six games.
Arizona was far from perfect. Davis handled Arizona star freshman DeAndre Ayton in the paint, scoring 21 points on only 12 shots. Texas A&M scored 40 of its 64 points in the paint, which is stultifying against a team that has a defensive presence like Ayton down low. Arizona’s leading scorer, junior Allonzo Trier, only scored seven points.
Miller blew his top with a bit more than eight minutes left in the game when Texas A&M’s Savion Flagg cut to the basket unperturbed and laid the ball in for one of the easiest layups you’ll ever see. Miller called a timeout in disgust, but the play Arizona made out of that timeout was a step-back three by Parker Jackson-Cartwright with a few ticks left on the shot clock — not exactly a model of efficient basketball. Texas A&M looked like the team with the poise and the ball movement and the confidence, not Arizona.
But this is December. And it does not matter how Arizona is in December. It matters how Arizona grows between December and March.
On Tuesday night, Arizona was not perfect. But on Tuesday night, Arizona won a game that it badly needed.
If you now think that Arizona is the favorite to win the national title, you’re crazy. Duke is more talented. Michigan State is deeper. Villanova is scrappier, more balanced and has more chemistry. Kansas has better guard play.
But if you’re counting out Arizona as a Final Four team, even as a national title contender, you’re just as crazy.
A Sean Miller team simply will not spend an entire season defending as poorly as this team has defended in the first month of the season; they will only improve.
This team is young. Ayton is the David Robinson of college basketball, and potentially the No. 1 pick. Trier is one of the best scorers in the sport. Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot are incredibly talented freshmen who show flashes of brilliance. Parker Jackson-Cartwright brings experience at the point guard position and serves as a great complementary scorer. Most importantly, Rawle Alkins, the big, tough sophomore wing, has yet to play a game due to a foot injury, but he was recently cleared for full contact. He will debut soon. As much as we can point out Arizona’s flaws, many of them are solved the moment a healthy Rawle Alkins takes the court.
It’s silly to look at one victory in early December and say that that means a struggling team has righted its ship. The ship could veer off course as early as this weekend, when Arizona hosts a tough Alabama team and its lottery pick point guard, Collin Sexton.
But Tuesday’s hard-fought, back-and-forth win against another potential Final Four team was a huge step in the right direction for Arizona. Come March, when we look back at Arizona’s season, it’s entirely possible we could look at this one December game as the big turning point.