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Arizona is a serious contender

Arizona is a serious contender for a national championship this season. The reason is simple as Arizona can play at any tempo in any venue. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of point totals, scoring averages and the like. However, the bottom line is can a team win playing outside of its comfort zone?

If Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski can continue to set a phyiscal tone on the low block, the skies the limit for this year's Arizona basketball team.

For Arizona, what’s interesting is the team is comfortable playing in both the open court and the half court set and the reason has everything to do with Sean Miller and his coaching staff.

Miller is a hard-nosed coach. His players have not only picked up on that, but have embraced it wholeheartedly. When the going gets tough, Miller’s Wildcats get tougher and that’s the type of mental and physical approach to the game that wins championships. For the second game in a row, Arizona countered an aggressive defensive club by upping its own effort on the defensive end.

It would be an understatement to say that what Arizona did at Clemson last Saturday was nothing short of amazing. Forget records, quality of opponent and whatever paper statistic can be conveniently used to undermine what Arizona accomplished in the Palmetto State. All of it is irrelevant. What is relevant is for a 20 minute stretch from the 10 minute mark of the first half through the 10 minute mark of the second half, Clemson was in control of that basketball game. The Tigers fans were on their feet and loud, very loud. The Tigers themselves fed off the energy and served to create a half-court helter skelter match where aggressive defense dictated hurried shots.

Those 20 minutes saw Arizona give up a 15-5 advantage to then trail 42-36. The Wildcats were afforded every opportunity to fold up the tents and make the 1,700-mile trek home with the excuse of “Well, it’s just one game.”

What Clemson didn’t account for is that once Arizona got punched in the face, the Wildcats started punching back, almost literally.

True freshman Kaleb Tarczewski got tangled up with Clemson’s Devin Booker with Arizona trailing. Surprisingly, after the entanglement, it was Tarczewski getting in the face of Booker telling him to stop talking trash. Similarly, on a breakout, Kevin Parrom took a Tiger hard to the floor on what should have been a breakaway layup. It wasn’t, and Parrom’s foul sent a message loud and clear that the Wildcats, Miller’s Wildcats, weren’t to be intimidated.

Arizona would eventually go on a 25-7 scoring run to break the game open and win 66-54. Doing as much at home would be impressive. Doing it on the road in a game that had the makings of an upset win by Clemson followed by a court storming of its fans is beyond impressive, and serves to pave the way for what could prove to be a run toward bigger and better things.

Arizona has already proven it can rack up points. The Wildcats entered the Clemson game averaging 81.5 points per contest. However, despite those lofty offensive numbers, Arizona has now found itself in back-to-back tussles with two clubs (Southern Miss and Clemson) hell bent on grinding the transition game to a halt and attempting to out-grit the Wildcats.

Kevin Parrom's senior leadership shines through by his toughness on the court.

While many fans pine for high-scoring games, it’s critical to understand that teams cannot excel in postseason play without the ability to go outside the norm and not only play in but win a game using a non-preferred style. True, it’s equally important for a team to learn how to “control and dictate” tempo so the game becomes their style. However, such a feat is easier said than done because it takes more than just pushing the basketball.

So many elements factor into style and it’s not just the players on the floor serving to dictate tempo. By way of example, both Arizona and Clemson were trying to push the basketball throughout that frenetic second half. Additionally, each team was producing excellent looks at the basket. However, it’s noteworthy to point out that the officials decided to swallow their whistles for long stretches of that second frame. The end result was a lot of hurried misses inside the paint coupled with a lot of shot blocks and contests by each club that could have easily resulted in a foul and free throws rather than the “let them play” approach the officials took. Personally, I wasn’t surprised by the non calls because that’s ACC basketball. Still, the point is the players aren’t always in control of how many points are produced in a game. If the refs are letting the defenses play, it can be incredibly difficult to score when there are so many quality athletes on the floor pushing and jockeying for position on the floor.

The bigger point is Arizona proved Saturday that it can contend for a title. Once March Madness rolls around, Arizona will face any variety of teams that play at any variety of pace. They will also face teams that are overmatched by the Wildcats and will need to turn to sloppy tactics to try and balance the playing field, something both Southern Miss and Clemson did the past week.

Arizona showed that it’s not afraid to get its hands dirty and roll around in the mud by pulling out victories over the Golden Eagles and the Tigers, and that’s the bottom line.

Over the course of the season, Arizona will put 80-plus points on scoreboards across the Pac-12 landscape. However, other times, they will also be asked to duke it out in the hardwood trenches. It’ll be those games that dictate how far the Wildcats can advance come March because once that NCAA logo is slapped on the floors the teams that can only run will at some point get run right out of the Big Dance.

Arizona, as of today, doesn’t appear to be one of those high-scoring pretenders. Instead, they look like a team well-deserving of their national ranking.

Follow me on Twitter @GaryRandazzo, and follow the website @WSRArizona.

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