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Tony Jones: Arizona shows it’s still the big dog in men’s hoops

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(Photo by Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Above, High school sports with Jennifer Gustavson, Maggie Thach and Tony Jones

By Tony Jones

Tribune Columnist

First published Feb 25 2014 09:40AM
Updated Feb 27, 2014 11:22PM

The whispers began with Brandon Ashley going down for the season with a foot injury. Those whispers turned to chatter as Arizona struggled with teams like Oregon and Oregon State — at the friendly confines of the McKale Center, no less. They turned into roars with an offensively challenged loss at Arizona State.

Many around the country took notice of the Wildcats and their inability to score. Perhaps this wasn’t the best team in the country, some theorized. Still others gave UCLA a fighting shot to catch Sean Miller’s team and win the Pac-12 regular-season title.

One week — seven days — killed all the chatter.

In one week, Arizona proved emphatically that it was still the big dog. In one week, the Wildcats proved to be by far the best team on the West Coast, and unquestionably one of the top five around the nation.

Most around the league know it isn’t easy sweeping the mountain road trip of Utah and Colorado. It requires dealing with elevation, two of the best home-court environments, and two pretty dang good teams.

Yet, that’s exactly what the Wildcats did last week, edging Utah at the Huntsman Center and spanking CU in Boulder. As that blowout proceeded on Saturday night, one could easily hear "U of A" cheers running through the Coors Events Center. It was a clear message sent that the Wildcats don’t intend to go anywhere.

"We had a good week of practice after the Arizona State game," Miller said. "Even when we went on the road, we practiced hard and we didn’t take any days off. It helped a lot."

What really helped was Miller’s lineup change and his willingness to start playing his bench. Before Ashley was hurt, Miller had a strict seven-man rotation. Following the injury, and after the loss to ASU, Miller inserted Gabe York as a starter and began playing the bench more liberally.

The moves make him look like a genius. York’s shooting has opened up the floor for people like Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon. A sophomore guard, York scored 15 points against the Utes and was instrumental in Arizona building a big lead. He then turned around and hauled in 10 rebounds against the Buffaloes.

"The rebounds were the most important stat for me," Miller said. "Gabe can shoot the ball. He spreads the defense out, he gives our offense more spacing and he makes it easier for some of our other guys to score. On the flip side, we got smaller, so we have to do some of the same things in order to be a good defensive team."

The best coaches are the ones who can switch on the fly. Losing his best frontcourt player in Ashley presented a test for Miller. But he’s taken a team that looked vulnerable and returned it to its previous national title-contending form.

With the way the Wildcats defend, if they make shots and score points, they will be awfully hard to beat. More than that, Arizona has a championship swagger about it. The Wildcats know they are good and know they are the best team in the Pac-12.

And now? Nobody wants to see Miller’s crew in the postseason.

tjones@sltrib.com

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