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Arizona Wildcats Keep Rolling

No. 4-ranked Arizona Wildcats are 9-0, tops in the Pac-12, and enjoying their best start in 25 years. How have they found such great success so far in the season, particularly in their 65-64 upset win over the then-No. 5-ranked Florida Gators last weekend?

Arizona’s win over the favored Gators was by no means easy; they had to score six points in the final minute of play to clinch it. But they did, and they showed the kind of guts and grit it takes to become a serious contender in college basketball.

“If you want to be labeled as a great team or a team that has a chance to win a national championship, you have to get over games like the Florida game,” Wildcats forward Solomon Hill said. “You need to have a new focus. Florida is behind us and now we are looking to Hawaii.”

Arizona’s win over Florida was also crucial in proving the Pac-12 haters wrong. The conference is undoubtedly weak this year (the second best team, Colorado, is hardly what you would call a basketball powerhouse) though Arizona proved that any conference that contains them can’t be all bad. Still, it was the first regular season win by a Pac-12 team against a top-five ranked nonconference opponent since 2008. Arizona knows they’re doing something right, and have every reason to carry themselves with a newfound swagger befitting the No. 4-ranked team in the nation.

“We’re the real deal,” Arizona’s Nick Johnson said. “Everybody said something about our schedule before this and this was the opportunity to prove ourselves in front of the nation.”

However, if Arizona is going to win down the stretch, particularly in big games like the gigantic Florida match up, they will have to tighten up their play. Against Oral Roberts on Tuesday, an Arizona blowout, the Wildcats were disturbingly loose with the ball. They turned it over 17 times, and turned it over on average 10.5 times for the two games before that. “We weren’t perfect tonight,” coach Sean Miller said. “We did some really good things, but the things we didn’t do so well we will learn from.”

Of course, a lot of great offensive teams have trouble with turnovers; it’s part of the territory that comes with explosiveness. A lot of their sloppiness may also stem from the low caliber of their opponent and Arizona’s willingness to take foolish gambles that they wouldn’t take in bigger moments. However, Arizona is going to have to lock it down and play seriously against bigger opponents.

Now Arizona heads to Hawaii this weekend to take on East Tennessee State on Saturday night in the quarterfinals of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. The winner of the game will face either Hawaii or Miami in the semifinals on Sunday. Arizona is, of course, 25-point favorites to win against the 2-7 Buccaneers. The last time these two teams met, back in 1992, Arizona was seeded third and East Tennessee State 14th in the Big Dance, but the Buccaneers beat Arizona in the first round of the tournament, 87-80.  That Arizona team included future NBA draft picks Damon Stoudamire, Chris Mills and Sean Rooks. However, nothing like that will happen here.

I generally advise against betting the favorites when the line is so high, but it seems likely that Arizona will cover the rather gaudy spread here. Take the Wildcats at -25.

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