Last season it took months for Arizona to get its first taste of losing. The Wildcats started off a blistering 21-0 before dropping a two-point game to Cal on Feb. 1. For much of Tuesday’s semifinal matchup with Kansas State in the Maui Invitational, Arizona didn’t look the part of an unbeatable force. But coach Sean Miller’s program did just enough to survive its first test of this young season.
No. 3 Arizona hung on for a 72-68 win over Kansas State, a victory that challenged the Wildcats’ roster in a way in which they hadn’t been previously challenged. In the first four games, the 'Cats' four wins came by 17 points or more each.
Kansas State, however, made Arizona work for this one right down to the buzzer. Kansas State led by as many as seven points in the first half and trailed the Wildcats by a single point, 31-30, at the break. Arizona, which had been plagued by a few bad starts this season, appeared to wake up in the second half. It staged a 10-0 run to take a 52-43 lead with 10:39 to play. This finally looked a little more like the ‘Cats team we’d seen last season.
But Kansas State wasn’t done. It whittled things down to a final possession with Arizona up 70-68. But that’s when Wesley Iwundu fouled Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who hit two free throws to seal the game with five seconds left.
These Wildcats might not be able to reel off 21 straight wins again, but perhaps that’s expected considering what they lost from a year ago. Miller’s crew said goodbye to Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson from a team that came agonizingly close to a Final Four berth against Wisconsin. Still, there’s plenty of talent on this roster, including five-star freshman forward Stanley Johnson, who chipped in 14 points and seven boards on Tuesday. Center Kaleb Tarczewski tied also a career-high with 18 points.
Yet the numbers say Arizona shouldn’t have had to escape Kansas State by the skin of its teeth in Maui. Sean Miller's team shot 53 percent from the floor, won the rebounding battle 30 to 23, and had four players score in double figures. This team is still one of the best defensive clubs in the country – KenPom had it as the nation’s fourth-most efficient unit prior to Tuesday – but it let Kansas State sink 7-of-12 of its 3-pointers, 58 percent, from deep. This looked like a team that couldn't put its opponent away.
Slow starts might work against the likes of UC Irvine and Mount St. Mary’s. It was enough to help Arizona notch its 32nd straight regular-season nonconference win against Kansas State. But a lot of coaches say lengthy winning streaks can be detrimental to a team in the long run. Indeed, last year’s Arizona squad failed to turn its strong start into a national championship.
Maybe these Wildcats need that kind of eye-opening experience to play a full 40 minutes. They won’t have to wait long before other opportunities arise. After facing either Pitt or San Diego State in the Maui title game this week, they’ll play home games against Gonzaga (Dec. 6) and Michigan (Dec. 13) later next month. We’ll learn a lot more about what this Arizona team is made of in the coming weeks.