Arizona proves its toughness with comeback win over Michigan

Saturday December 14th, 2013

Arizona hit 14 of 15 free throws, including six straight in the final minute by guard Nick Johnson.
Carlos Osorio /AP

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Most college basketball fans will forget this game, but the Arizona Wildcats will not. They flew across the country, faced a hungry and talented Michigan team before a boisterous, hostile crowd, barely had any time to shoot on a tough road arena, tipped off at 10 a.m. Mountain Time, and fell behind by nine points at halftime. All signs pointed to an Arizona loss.

But this is what we learned about these Wildcats: They really like that No. 1 ranking. And they kept it by rallying back to earn a 72-70 win over Michigan. The Wildcats also like big stakes and rough waters, and we should all remember that in March when people start wondering just how tough the Pac-12 power really is.

How tough? Physically? Well, Arizona out-rebounded Michigan 37-24. Mentally? Arizona hit 14 of 15 free throws on the road, including six straight in the final minute by guard Nick Johnson.

"We've been working for this for so long," Johnson said. "My team trusts in me. So, I mean, there is no pressure."

Look, December pressure is not the same as March pressure. We all know that. But champions are built in games like this. You don't prepare for the NCAA tournament by knocking off 6-foot-6 centers and 5-foot-9 guards on your home court.

"When you say we went to San Diego State, played Duke at (Madison Square) Garden -- which is basically a home game for them -- we've been tested," Johnson said. "And I think the country is starting to see that. We're not just a West Coast team, a top team that stays at home and just plays easy teams. We want to test ourselves. Going into the tournament, hopefully we have (home-court) advantage, kind of, but it's definitely going to be easy for our young guys."

Home court in March would likely mean games in San Diego and Anaheim the first two weekends of the tournament. Those young guys should make it happen. Arizona has some rare beasts in the college game: talented young big men who play well together. Seven-foot tall sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-8 sophomore forward Brandon Ashley and 6-8 freshman Aaron Gordon don't have to take turns watching each other go to work. They work with each other.

"We didn't have to grow into anything," Gordon said. "I'm very, very capable of playing most positions, so I'm not stepping on anybody's toes."

Gordon was supposed to be in the second tier of the nation's elite freshmen, just below Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Duke's Jabari Parker and Kentucky's Julius Randle. That is where he belongs, frankly. He does not have Wiggins' freakish athleticism, Parker's incredible skill or Randle's ability to abuse people in the post. He is not the same level of prospect that those guys are.

But Gordon is plenty good, a likely top-10 draft pick, and he is a winner. He proved it again Saturday. In the first half, he guarded Caris Levert, and Michigan's Glenn Robinson III went off. Gordon says he "took it upon myself" to guard Robinson.

Some numbers: Second-half Robinson and first-half Levert (guarded mostly by Gordon) scored nine points. First-half Robinson and second-half Levert (guarded mostly by others) combined to score 26 points. I didn't break it down possession-by-possession based on who Gordon was guarding. But that may be the simplest explanation of why Arizona won the game. When you have a freshman star who defends like that, you have something special.

Gordon said the Wildcats want to "lay to rest some of the stereotypes." I asked which stereotypes he meant, but that was like asking a turtle if people think he is slow.

"The West Coast is soft," Gordon said. "You don't have to ask me. I think you know."

I know. They know. We all know. But the Wildcats did not look soft in this one. They trailed by eight with less than six minutes left, and while Michigan has struggled early this season because of injuries and inexperience, the Wolverines are still going to be very good. Most visiting teams would have lost to Michigan Saturday. Arizona came back and won.

The most talented teams in the country have been inconsistent this season. Kentucky lost to Baylor. Michigan State lost to North Carolina at home. Kansas lost to Villanova, Colorado and Florida.

Arizona, meanwhile, is 10-0, and could be unbeaten into February. The Wildcats don't have a road game against a team that is currently ranked until Feb. 22 at Colorado.

People will forget what happened Saturday. They will start calling Arizona another soft Pac-12 team, and say that the Wildcats are No. 1 but won't be in the end. The Wildcats don't seem to care. They believe their work in December will bring rewards in March.

"We're still chasing it," Johnson said. "We want to be the No. 1 team in the country for as long as we can."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.