Writing off a talented team with a good coach is a foolish thing to do in February, and the same is true in the first week of March. So this is not the time to pen an obituary for Arizona, because Sean Miller can coach and he’s working with talent.
Knee-jerk reactions seldom are advised and especially unwise during a college basketball season as deceiving as this. With that in mind, consider most of these opinions to be cautious predictions.
Arizona, once considered the best of the West, will be a bet-against team in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats are 5-12 against the spread in their past 17 games, after getting upset at Southern California on Wednesday.
Miller is a better recruiter than coach, but he does know X’s and O’s and can motivate, too, so Arizona’s shortcomings are surprising. I expected him to have the Wildcats rolling into March, but it’s not happening.
“I’m not that impressed by Arizona. I could see them getting knocked off right off the bat in the tournament. I think they are definitely at risk,” said handicapper Bruce Marshall of The Gold Sheet. “They have had so many close calls, and if they had lost some of those games, we could be talking about them being a No. 8 or 9 seed.”
The Wildcats are 23-5, ranked 11th and in line for a No. 4 seed. But they are 11-5 in the Pac-12 Conference with home losses to California and UCLA along with a controversial overtime victory over Colorado. Even during a 12-0 nonconference run, Arizona was fortunate in one-point wins against Florida and San Diego State.
Nick Johnson, a former Findlay Prep standout, Mark Lyons and Kevin Parrom form a solid backcourt, and 6-foot-7-inch Solomon Hill is a solid forward. But the Wildcats are not defending — allowing an offensively challenged USC team to shoot 61.1 percent — and their young bigs are developing too slowly.
Marshall (Goldsheet.com) labeled Arizona a “real money burner” and “false contender,” and it appears to be a team to avoid in March.
We’ll learn more Saturday, when the Wildcats get a rematch with UCLA and star freshman Shabazz Muhammad. The Bruins are too flaky, so I won’t advise betting against Miller’s team in this spot, off a loss and seeking revenge.
But, with an eye toward the NCAA Tournament, I will put Arizona in the Julia Roberts category — overrated — along with Louisville, San Diego State and Syracuse.
Cardinals guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva are not worth the media hype they get, and they won’t lead Rick Pitino back to the Final Four. The Aztecs’ best player, Jamaal Franklin, can’t shoot the 3, and he’s determined to keep proving that point. The Orange have lost four of their past five road games.
“I’m not all that sure about Butler. Brad Stevens is a heck of a coach, but he’s kind of doing it with mirrors,” said Marshall, who also throws Memphis (24-4, 13-0 in a weak Conference USA) in the overrated pile.
The Kate Upton category — teams that look good, are legit contenders and no longer fly under the radar — includes Gonzaga and Saint Louis.
Two weeks ago, the Bulldogs were 20-1 to win the national championship, and the odds are down to 12-1. Gonzaga is set to take over the No. 1 ranking, if that means anything, after sneaking by Brigham Young 70-65 as a 5½-point road favorite Thursday night.
The blue-collar Billikens, at 35-1 odds, are 22-5 and on a 10-game win streak including a sweep of Butler. Jim Crews has made a smooth transition after taking over for the late coach Rick Majerus.
Akron, Belmont, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State go in the Jennifer Lawrence category — hot teams beginning to get recognized for being hot.
The Zips have won 19 straight, the Bruins (23-6) rank seventh in the nation in field-goal percentage and 16th in scoring offense, the Bulldogs have won 17 in a row, and the Blue Raiders are riding a 15-game win streak.
I have no actress/model analogy for this category, but Colorado State, Wisconsin and Virginia Commonwealth are dangerous teams that no opposing coach wants to draw.
It appears North Carolina, still a team with limited potential, was written off by many too early. Duke, despite another loss Thursday, is not dead yet, with injured forward Ryan Kelly set to return soon.
It’s still hard to figure how live New Mexico will be in March, yet it’s obvious Steve Alford is an underrated coach getting the most out of his talent, turning the Mountain West race into a runaway.
Gonzaga, not Arizona, is the best of the West. But the Bulldogs barely survived BYU, another sign of the madness coming in March.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.