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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Basketball’s weaker schedule concludes on positive note

    Each of the Arizona men’s basketball team’s first five games revealed an evident area for improvement. Whether it was first-half struggles, lack of perimeter defense or poor free throw shooting, UA interim head coach Russ Pennell could accurately pinpoint the Wildcats’ flaws.

    Then came a woeful Loyola Maryamount team with eight roster players Tuesday night – a matchup that gave the Wildcats a 40-minute juggernaut look.

    Arizona could do no wrong from both sides of the ball. Reserve forward Zane Johnson gave his best NBA lottery pick impression with a career- and game-high 17 points, all sparked by a hot hand beyond the arc with five 3-pointers.

    The Wildcats’ defense limited LMU to 27 percent first-half shooting from the floor in a game full of air balls and turnovers (12) from the Lions.

    “”I thought defensively at times we were outstanding,”” Pennell said. “”I thought that was the best defense we’ve played.””

    Exactly how smooth did it go from both ends? Walk-on guard David Bagga not only responded to fans who urged him to shoot upon every touch, he drained a 3-pointer and received a warm McKale Center ovation with 1:30 remaining in the game.

    Smiles came from the Wildcat bench. Following Bagga’s shot, starters like Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jamelle Horne stood waving towels with a newfound swagger.

    “”It’s given us a lot more confidence that we can go out there and defend our opponents at will,”” said UA forward Jordan Hill. “”It gives us confidence that we can go out there and get good shots up.””

    It’s that new level of confidence after effectively plugging the defensive holes and executing shots over the course of two weeks, that Arizona might not have gotten from taking the other route through New York City earlier this season.

    The initial schedule looked promising for a sprinkle of top-25 talent in the season’s earlygames. Just two weeks ago, the Wildcats controlled their own destiny in a trip to Madison Square Garden that would have matched them up with top-tier talent like No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 9 Purdue.

    Instead, a dramatic Nov. 18 loss to Alabama-Birmingham gave the Wildcats two extra tune-up games as December approached.

    Mississippi Valley State, Santa Clara, NAU and then LMU turned into four straight wins. By bypassing the originally anticipated top-ranked talent, the weaker schedule gave Arizona a chance to experiment and give in-game experience to the underclassmen.

    “”It’s so important that our freshmen get some game experience,”” Pennell said. “”I really believe down the line, we’re going to need each and every one of them at some point. It’s important that they know what to do when they get into the game.

    “”These are the type of games that are really good for that,””

    he added.

    From this point forward, the Wildcats will prepare for improved opposition with Phase II of their schedule – beginning Friday night at Texas A&M against a school that has won 50 consecutive nonconference home games.

    The following weekend, Arizona travels to Phoenix for a matchup against No. 5 Gonzaga in the U.S. Airways Center, not to be overhyped before a “”very good”” San Diego State team travels to Tucson just four days prior.

    “”Our schedule takes a big upturn and we know that,”” Pennell said. “”That’s what’s going to be good about these next few games.””

    The third week of December, Arizona travels to Nevada-Las Vegas on Dec. 20 before hosting Kansas, the defending national champions on the cusp of the top-25 rankings.

    As almost every coach uses the philosophy of “”one game at a time,”” Pennell is no exception, choosing not to predict if the team is ready for the

    newfound challenge.

    “”I have no idea and that’s what we’re going to find out,”” Pennell said. “”It’s going to be, I think, a real telltale sign of this team in the next couple weeks, and I’m not going to measure the season on the outcome of those games. I’m going to measure it more of how we play and how we compete.””

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