By regular-season standards, the Arizona Wildcats can’t get much higher than this.
Monday, just three days after they showcased themselves by beating Duke in New York on ESPN, the Wildcats moved up to the No. 2 spot in both major polls, their highest-ever ranking under fifth-year coach Sean Miller.
Then, later in the day, they learned that junior guard Nick Johnson was named the Pac-12’s Player of the Week, adding that honor to the NIT MVP trophy he picked up at Madison Square Garden. Johnson averaged 17.5 points, 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds in wins over Drexel and Duke last week.
But while Miller said Monday that Johnson deserved the award, and that the Wildcats (7-0) are playing well heading into tonight’s home game against Texas Tech (6-2), he didn’t put much stock into the rankings.
It’s barely December, after all.
“If we’re ranked No. 2 in late February, I think that’s much more meaningful,” Miller said. “We didn’t win a bowl game or (reach) the end of the season this past weekend.”
Miller and the Wildcats should know the difference between early season hype and February accomplishment. They lived it.
Last season, they were ranked No. 3 at New Year’s, but were out of the Top 10 by late February and sank to No. 21 entering the NCAA tournament.
Here’s how that happened:
Over Christmas, the Wildcats won the Diamond Head Classic, and returned home giddy, comfortable, unbeaten, and the No. 3-ranked team in the country.
Then, a week later, they barely escaped Colorado at home, then lost at Oregon and three more times over the following month.
They didn’t win the Pac-12 championship and were given a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament before rallying to a Sweet 16 berth.
“We hit a rut in large part because I don’t know if our team continued to practice and stay together like we did early on,” Miller said Monday, during his weekly news conference. “We struggled somewhat. We went through a month or six-week period of time where there were a lot of teams better than us.
“So if you were a member of that team last year and, we’ve talked about it, how do you guard against that happening again?”
Miller said the answer is continuing to stay together with good team chemistry and practicing hard. He also has the team maturity and leadership that suggests the Wildcats can deal with any fractures or overconfidence this time around.
But that chemistry and resolve will be tested for a long time. Starting with tonight, when the Wildcats host Tubby Smith’s Texas Tech team, Miller said, the Cats can’t afford not to show up and play hard against people who want desperately to beat them.
“There isn’t a team that’s going to play us now that isn’t going to look at our game as something that’s going to be very meaningful,” Miller said. “Being able to go on the road and beat Arizona at McKale Center would be something every team would covet to have in their pocket, so to speak, as you move toward March.”
“So we have to be on guard and understand that every game is an important one for us. And the higher you’re ranked, I think the more excited the opponent is to come in here and upset you, to try to prove that also they’re a very good team.”