TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona and North Carolina should be about even. Both rosters are loaded with embarrassing amounts of NBA talent. Together the two teams are a collection of the college game's elite freshmen and sophomores.
The Wildcats have a Hall of Fame coach; the Tar Heels have a future Hall-of Famer. They both started the season in the top 10. They're two of the highest-powered offenses in the nation. If the likes of Williams, Budinger, Radenovic, Shakur and McClellan were taking on Hansbrough, Wright, Ellington, Lawson and Terry in a pickup game, much less a regular-season tilt, it would be highly competitive, must-see TV, right?
So here we are at a CBS game on a Saturday afternoon in late January, No. 4 vs. No. 17 in front of a packed house of 14,596 at the McKale Center. Arizona should have a sizable advantage, seeing that UNC's home is 2,000 miles away and the game started at 11 a.m. MT.
It's the 7:59 mark of the second half, and the Tar Heels' best freshman (and the likely third pick in the next NBA Draft), Brandan Wright, is wearing a suit; he and teammate Marcus Ginyard have the stomach flu and were late scratches from the lineup. Double and triple advantage, Arizona.
Yet, I'm being handed an ominous sheet by the U of A's media relations staff, delivered fresh from the Xerox machine to press row. The heading: "Worst McKale Center Losses Under Lute Olson." The worst in his 24-year career in Tucson, according to the sheet, was a 12-point loss to Tennessee in December 1983.
Then I pan over the deflated crowd, where the red-painted students who were going wild an hour ago are now crossing their arms and grimacing in a pose similar to the one Olson is doing on the sideline, and look up to the scoreboard and see UNC 69, Arizona 46 -- already well on its way to becoming the new, all-time worst of 92-64.
Two questions come to mind: What the hell happened? And how can UNC and Arizona be so far apart?
"There's nothing to say other than that North Carolina was great and we were awful," said Olson, whose Wildcats were 1-of-23 from 3-point land and committed 20 turnovers to UNC's 12. "It's too bad because the stage was set for everyone to really enjoy a great basketball game. And this was not a great basketball game. It was a great team playing against somebody that looked like it was trying to do everything wrong."
The difference between Carolina and Arizona goes beyond Saturday's deep-freeze-and-turnover festival. While both lineups are stacked, the two teams diverge in the departments of depth, defense and effective use of speed. Those are the reasons why the Heels are only beginning to hit their stride -- and are looking like legit national title contenders -- while Arizona looks as if it's hitting a wall.
I walked with UNC star Tyler Hansbrough to the team bus afterward; he had struggled mightily, going the entire first half and then five minutes of the second before scoring his first field goal, but seemed excited at what had happened around him. Namely, that playing without three of their top nine players -- Wright, Ginyard and the injured Bobby Frasor -- the Heels still managed to have six guys in double-figures, and received career highs in points from freshmen Tywon Lawson (18), Deon Thompson (14) and Alex Stepheson (10).
"That was such a pickup for us, with Brandan gone," Hansbrough said. "It just says something about our depth; when anyone misses a game, we have people who can come in and fill their spots."
On Saturday, it was Thompson and Stepheson coming up huge in the post, exploiting Arizona's lack of interior size and defensive plan to neutralize Hansbrough with double-teams. UNC coach Roy Williams challenged them with the opportunity to play more minutes than usual, and figured the rest of the Heels' regulars would play more focused basketball to compensate for Wright's absence.
"I don't know that depth is that important during the course of one game," Williams said, even though it obviously was against Arizona, "but over the course of the season it's important."
The Wildcats, on the other hand, are finding that out the hard way. They play relatively fast basketball -- with the nation's 68th highest-paced attack, at 70.1 possessions per game -- but have all five starters playing at least 31 minutes a game, and only one sub (Daniel Dillon) averaging more than 10 minutes. Fatigue is becoming an issue.
"We thought we came out ready, but I lost a lot of energy early and after the first four minutes I was tired," said junior guard Jawann McClellan, who was on the floor while the 'Cats turned the ball over on four of their first five possessions. "A lot of us, we're tired."
Arizona did get one major contribution from its bench; after Budinger was whistled for his second foul -- and sent to the bench -- five minutes into the first half, fellow freshman Jordan Hill stepped in and finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. The rest of the Wildcats' bench, however, combined for zero points and four boards in 35 combined minutes of action. After they lost leading scorer Marcus Williams to an ankle injury late in the first half, Arizona's offense flat-lined and couldn't claw back from the 43-25 lead UNC had mounted by halftime. Said Olson of his team, "It was just like, who is this out there?"
While the Wildcats' offensive woes were highly uncharacteristic -- they ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency coming into the game -- their struggles on defense were par for the course. North Carolina was cold itself from 3-point range, shooting 5-of-22 on the game, but regularly got great looks inside for Thompson and Stepheson, and used Lawson to gash the defense off the dribble. Olson seemed particularly distressed with the fact that his team gave up 21 layups. Arizona's defensive woes have been masked during Pac-10 play by its scoring prowess, but statistically the 'Cats had been poor all season: They rank 73rd nationally in defensive efficiency.
UNC, meanwhile, is actually a better team on defense than it is on offense; its D isn't given proper credit because of all the points it yields in high-speed games, but ranks second in the country in efficiency. The Heels forced four turnovers in Arizona's first five possessions, and scored 20 points off of turnovers on the day compared to the Wildcats' 11. Carolina is a title contender because it augments a top-10 offense with a top-10 defense. The model Arizona is currently following -- simply try to outscore people, while rarely getting stops on the other end -- is not a formula for postseason success. And it's not working of late, either, with the 'Cats dropping five of their past seven games after a 12-1 start.
If the Tar Heels take one thing away from this game -- other than the knowledge that they just delivered the biggest road beat-down of 2006-07, and quieted some of the Pac-10-is-the-best-league-in-the-land talk -- it's that Lawson needs to be the focal point of their offense from here on out. The freshman point guard's wheels are an invaluable asset -- and that's not just my opinion. Thompson calls Lawson's speed "serious." Hansbrough says Ty's game "can kind of overwhelm other teams." Williams said Lawson "came up big-time." Olson said Lawson "ran the fast break perfectly."
Arizona is more athletic than 99 percent of the nation, and Lawson, who finished with eight assists and just one giveaway, blew by Mustafa Shakur et al with ease. The Heels scored 16 fast-break points and the Wildcats had just two.
"Lawson pushed the ball hard," Ivan Radenovic said. "We'd make a shot and they'd have the ball down court in three seconds." Carolina, which plays at the nation's 18th-fastest tempo (at 73.3 possessions per game), has mastered NASCAR-paced basketball -- and it left Arizona in the dust.
"I basically told the guys that this was a nightmare," Olson said. "We're not even going to look at the tapes."
That's a reasonable way to proceed after a historic loss -- especially when you have the rest of a grueling Pac-10 schedule to worry about. But even though the final score was exaggerated by wayward shooting and Williams' injury, the result was no fluke. The chasm between North Carolina and Arizona is as deep as the Tar Heels' bench. Superior depth, defense and speed cannot be taken for granted.