Arizona’s talent, balance is ‘a handful’


SAN DIEGO

Here’s a problem for the other 15 teams still breathing in the NCAA Tournament: When it plays like this, scoring in transition, defending with size and length and purpose in the half court, making open shots out of set plays, forcing turnovers, having its way at both ends over 40 minutes, Arizona offers a basketball team that is nearly impossible to beat.

When they play like this, you might as well book the Wildcats a flight to North Texas for the Final Four now.

And include in one of their travel bags a pair of scissors.

But whether or not Arizona can continue the level it produced in hammering Gonzaga 84-61 in a West Region game at Viejas Arena on Sunday will be learned over the next week, a date against Mountain West regular-season champion San Diego State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Anaheim up first.

This wasn’t a game Sunday.

It was a clinic.

“That’s the best team we’ve played, gosh, that I can remember,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We played in Buffalo against Syracuse four or five years ago in (the NCAAs). ... I guess I should come up with more teams but I mean, the Arizona of tonight was as good as we have faced. Physical, athletic, playing as a team. They’re a handful. Just too much for us.”

Looking for ways to beat Arizona is like looking for flaws in Rihanna. It’s like trying to discover a type of coffee beverage not offered at Starbucks.

But the Wildcats have lost four times in 36 games, meaning there have been nights when opponents were able to compete in a way that bothers Arizona.

Which is to say not turning the ball over or taking quick shots.

You can’t do either against the Wildcats and win.

Gonzaga did both in alarming fashion.

The Zags had 21 turnovers which Arizona turned into 31 points.

Read that part again.

Twenty-one into 31.

In a third-round NCAA Tournament game, from one of the more consistently good programs there is in the country.

Think about it: When in the world can you remember Gonzaga being so thoroughly outclassed?

If it can speed you up, Arizona gets to running and dunking and the grip around your neck becomes like that of a python to its prey. Gonzaga shot 40 percent, forcing offense in trying to rally the entire evening.

It was 22-11 before the Zags realized the game had begun.

“I really felt it would be decided in the last possession or over the final minutes,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Gonzaga wasn’t at its best. It happens. You don’t want it to happen this late in the year, but it happens sometimes. And this was easily one of our best performances of the year. We played very, very well.”

There are few weaknesses. There might not be a better offensive rebounding team nationally than Arizona, few if any sides that can suffocate an opponent in the half court better, and its offense has a balance to it that makes scouting the Wildcats difficult.

You never know which of their stars might go off on a given night.

It’s not a great shooting team from distance and you can certainly devise a scout that forces Arizona to attempt more 3-pointers than it prefers. Quick guards have also given the Wildcats problems this season, because the more you can keep Arizona from switching all screens, the better your chances at scoring against them become.

That’s pretty much it.

Rihanna. Starbucks.

It’s a monster of a reality San Diego State must now encounter for a second time this season, having lost to the Wildcats 69-60 here in November.

An obvious issue for the underdog: San Diego State is Arizona.

Just not as good.

The teams play much the same way, certainly defend the same way, are athletic and long in a similar manner, like to score the same way.

Arizona is just doing it with pros and San Diego State isn’t.

The Wildcats have a margin of error of, say, Summerlin to Henderson.

The Aztecs have a margin of error of, say, Sahara Avenue to Flamingo Road.

“We ran into a buzz saw,” Few said. “Arizona is an excellent team. Really well coached and as good defensively as we have seen in a long time. When you’re not strong with the ball and they get out running and offense becomes easy for them, they’re great. When they play like this, they can beat you in pretty much every facet.

“I hope they keep playing this way all the way through.”

If they do, book the flight and pack the scissors.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.