Win bolsters Wildcats' confidence
NEW YORK -- Few teams start to proclaim must-wins in November, especially before Thanksgiving.
But there are only a handful of programs that consider themselves to be on the same level as Arizona, an elite basketball power that expects to be in contention for the Final Four every season.
The Wildcats' Channing Frye grabbed a rebound with one-tenth of a second left to preserve a sloppy and certainly ugly offensive 61-60 overtime victory against Michigan on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. But if Daniel Horton's shot goes in the bucket instead, would the season have been lost for the Wildcats?
Not quite. But it was certainly easy to profess Wednesday's win as a must-get after the game. To be fair to the Wildcats, they did talk about the importance of the game after losing by 18 points at Virginia on Sunday. Getting the win, especially after shooting 23 percent in the first half, a downright scary 31.4 percent overall, 26.3 percent on 3s, is a victory in itself.
"This was a must-win," said Arizona junior forward Hassan Adams, who was the chief bricklayer in the first half by going 0-for-7. "Sunday's game put pressure on us to see if we were tough enough to bounce back."
They were, barely.
Arizona did everything it could to give this game away with poor offensive execution. The Wildcats mostly couldn't convert when they had to. That put the defense in the rare position of 'needed it' to win the game. Michigan was just as woeful on the perimeter, shooting 23.8 percent, 37.7 overall and unable to get a quality shot off.
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker credited Arizona's defense after the game, saying Arizona did a great job of guarding the Wolverines without fouling them.
"We won because we grinded it out and when we needed a board, we got a board and when we needed a steal, we got a steal," Frye said. "We needed this, we definitely needed this."
Arizona coach Lute Olson said the Wildcats learned that they could win a game by leaning on their defense and rebounding. (They outrebounded Michigan by 13.) He's confident that the shots will fall for the 'Cats, especially shooters like Salim Stoudamire (2 of 5 on 3s), Chris Rodgers (0-for-5 overall), and Frye (an odd 2-for-14 in the paint). Arizona had 23 offensive rebounds but still couldn't convert too often, which speaks to its inability to finish.
But getting the win allowed Olson to get this team's attention, just in time to face top-ranked Wake Forest on Friday night in the Preseason NIT finals. Games against Mississippi State Bulldogs in Anaheim and at Marquette are on the horizon. The Wildcats still believe they're a Final Four contender. But they had to win here Wednesday to convince themselves after getting "embarrassed" at Virginia. That was Stoudamire's description.
"The University of Arizona has been the premier club in November and to come out of it 2-3 would have been awful," Arizona associate coach Jim Rosborough said. "We played like crap at Virginia. We didn't play very well [Wednesday] but we still got the 'W'. We couldn't score but they couldn't, either. We've got our confidence, though, and that will help us a lot."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.