Arizona hoops hopes to go up from here

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LAHAINA, Hawaii — For a team that became 6-0 after winning the Maui Invitational championship Wednesday, the question was an obvious one.

So, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was asked, where does this take you from here?

“Thanksgiving dinner,” Hollis-Jefferson said.

Well, that was true, actually. The Wildcats went back to their Kaanapali Beach hotel for one final night, sharing a Thanksgiving eve meal with fans who traveled with them before everyone boarded a charter flight home Thursday morning.

But the other truth, of course, is that Arizona goes right back into the next phase of nonconference play: a strategically scheduled set of five consecutive home games, with mid-and low-major opponents buffering Saturday marquee games against Gonzaga (Dec. 6) and Michigan (Dec. 13), all meant to prepare Arizona for Pac-12 play and, of course, the NCAA tournament.

There is so much parity in college basketball. If we rest on our laurels and not improve the things we need, we won’t continue to have the success we had in this tournament.
— Sean Miller, Arizona coach

The Zags and Wolverines are the obvious tests, but games with Gardner-Webb (Tuesday), Utah Valley (Dec. 9) and Oakland (Dec. 16) will test the Wildcats’ mental state and maybe give coach Sean Miller a chance to go deep in the bench a few more times before the rotation locks in for Pac-12 play.

“If we’re not working to become better, we’ll find out right away what happens when we play” Gonzaga, Miller said. “We also play Gardner-Webb, which beat Clemson earlier [in the U.S. Virgin Islands]. There is so much parity in college basketball. If we rest on our laurels and not improve the things we need, we won’t continue to have the success we had in this tournament.”

All this comes from a coach who warned about a “rocky start” to the season before the Wildcats opened exhibition play against Cal Poly Pomona, yet the few bumps have been manageable so far.

The Wildcats still have a habit of starting games poorly, they have struggled against zone defenses, and they beat Kansas State and San Diego State by only a combined six points on Maui. Stanley Johnson struggled with fouls against K-State, and T.J. McConnell and Kaleb Tarczewski did so against San Diego State.

But they found a way to win those games, discovering a resolve they didn’t know if they had, seeing Johnson quickly mature into a standout, and getting more lifesaving play from Hollis-Jefferson, whom Miller called an “incredible defensive player.”

In the final 11 minutes of his tournament MVP performance Wednesday against San Diego State, Johnson hit 6 of 6 free throws in the final three minutes, grabbed two steals and blocked a shot. Hollis-Jefferson, named to the all-tournament team, spread out his 14 points, six rebounds and three blocks throughout the game.

“We have a good group,” Miller said. “Rondae and Stanley [Johnson], both guys know how to win. They came to Arizona in large part to try to win these types of things that we’re in.”

What’s more, in what has to be dear to Miller’s heart, the Wildcats are finding the defensive identity they embraced last season.

Arizona homestand

Date Opponent
Dec. 2 Gardner-Webb
Dec. 6 Gonzaga
Dec. 9 Utah Valley
Dec. 13 Michigan
Dec. 16 Oakland

Until San Diego State made two desperation threes in the final 17 seconds Wednesday, Arizona had held the Aztecs to a single field goal in the previous nine minutes. The Wildcats also had three blocks and two steals in that span, while fouling considerably less often than they did in the first half.

“We really didn’t change anything defensively,” Miller said. “Sometimes if you’re a very good defensive team, and I think we are, as the game wears on, it becomes harder and harder to score against you if you stick to what you do well.”

So maybe it’s not all bad.

Maybe it’s OK to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, and a trophy, just for a little while.

“We’re excited that we won this tournament,” Miller said. “I think we all have to be careful that we enjoy what we’re doing, and enjoy Maui, enjoy being here with each other, and enjoy this great moment that we have, a hard-earned championship.”

Hollis-Jefferson, for one, isn’t going to have trouble with that. The dinner, the trophy … or the practices that will follow this weekend.

“It’s great to win tournaments like this,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Very prestigious, great tournament to be at. To come out with a victory is big time, big time, definitely big time.

“It doesn’t stop here. You win and you want to keep winning. So you’ve got to go back to practice and keep working hard and just prepare for the next win.”

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