Arizona has played well this season, displaying a much approved defense and a much more patient offense. Unfortunately, until today's game, their improved performance on the court was clouded by a 4-2 record that included losses to Virginia and Kansas and wins over some schools with acronyms as long as the alphabet.
Early, it looked like Arizona's home court advantage would be rendered meaningless in another big time game. Texas A&M used a 17-1 run to jump out to a comfortable 29-12 lead with 7:32 to play in the half. The Aggies were controlling the boards and using an effective inside game that led to many easy baskets. Arizona, meanwhile, was struggling mightily to even get off a shot against a suffocating Aggies defense.
For most of the first half, Nic Wise seemed to be the only Wildcat playing at full speed as everyone else was neutralized by the Aggies' surprisingly long and athletic players.
Then it happened.
Freshman guard Jerryd Bayless decided to take the team on his shoulders in putting together a late half rally that, yes, only cut the lead to 12 at the break, but inspired the team, lifted the crowd, and instilled a confidence that the unranked and youthful Wildcats could compete with the No. 9 Aggies.
Bayless knocked down back-to-back jumpers (one from behind the three-point line) and just like that the idle Arizona faithful rose to their feet and finally joined the game. Moments later, Bayless would knock down another shot. He soon followed his seven straight points with an incredible down-low feed to Hill that capped off a 9-2 Arizona run. After a Texas A&M three-pointer and a Chase Budinger miscue, Bayless went one-on-one at the top of the key before nailing another jumper. He'd hit another three-pointer in the final two minutes that helped keep the Wildcats stay within reach heading into the locker room.
After the break, it was all Arizona.
Arizona came out playing the type of defense Arizona fans have grown accustomed to seeing this season. The Aggies were denied on their first five possessions, which included a shot-clock violation and a traveling call. Arizona, meanwhile, picked up where they left off with Bayless scoring four early points.
This time Bayless was not alone, though.
Arizona, as a team, was much more cognizant of where everyone was on the floor and their crisp passing, dribble penetration, and inside-out feeds led to many open looks which players knocked down. Budinger made all three of his three-pointers in the second half. Jawann McClellan made two of his three attempts in the half as well. Inside, Jordan Hill was a beast, finishing with 13 points and getting the taller Aggies into foul trouble with his aggressive play. In fact, the entire team was on the attack in the second half.
Unlike previous games this season, Arizona only played eight players and two of them, Kirk Walters and Jamelle Horne, only played eight and five minutes, respectively. Interim head coach Kevin O'Neill is admittedly a "feel" coach and apparently he felt that the six Wildcats who played at least 26 minutes each were good enough on this day to get the job done.
O'Neill was right.
Bayless led all scorers with 26 points while Budinger chipped in another 19 with most of his coming in the decisive second half. The two, for most of the half, were unstoppable. Both were demanding the ball and taking advantage of their defender when they got it.
Each also distributed the ball effectively when the shots weren't there. In fact, the one player who deserves a ton of credit tonight was Hill who did an outstanding job in setting screens and then rolling to the basket. On three occasions, Bayless (twice) and Budinger (once) came off the screen with the ball, elevated to shoot, and instead dumped the ball inside to Hill for a lay up or a dunk. The biggest of these pick and rolls occurred late, with the Wildcats leading 64-60.
After Arizona forced the Aggies into a difficult three-point attempt, the Wildcats raced down the floor to set up the play. Wise entered the offense and found Bayless on the wing. Hill came from the low post to set the high screen. Bayless rolled off and rather than shooting, faked the shot and hit Hill cutting to the basket. Hill slammed the ball home to put Arizona up by six. After the Aggies responded with a three-pointer, Bayless then rubbed off another high screen and found Budinger along the baseline. Budinger stroked the 15-footer to give Arizona a 69-64 advantage.
Texas A&M would only score three more points to end the game. Arizona would score nine to win the game going away.
Down the stretch, Arizona played efficient basketball against full court pressure never once turning the ball over in the final four minutes. More importantly, in the final two minutes and Arizona leading 71-66, the Wildcats made all six of their free throws to take away little hope of any last second Texas A&M heroics.
Today, Bayless came of age. Arizona fans have seen this coming all season as he's put together some pretty impressive games thus far. However, today's was much different. For one, they won the game and had it not been for Bayless getting hot and making huge shots late in the first half and early in the second, it's hard to imagine how the Wildcats could have comeback from a deficit that at one time reached 18 points. Second, Bayless, despite being a true freshman, looked like a man against boys in taking all the pushes and shoves the Aggies were willing to dish out. He never once backed down and, of course, that was his tag coming out of high school, that he was probably the toughest player Arizona's ever recruited.
Another tough player was Arizona's senior forward Bret Brielmaier who continues to amaze game after game. Against Texas A&M, Brielmaier did the little things all day to be effective against the taller and quicker Aggies he had to defend. In the early goings of the second half, Brielmaier had two steals on entry passes that helped get the Wildcats out and running. He only finished the game with five points and five rebounds but not knowing the statistics and only having to guess, I would've thought he finished with at least double that. Brielmaier is proving to be one of the best true role players in the storied history of Arizona basketball and for a kid who sacrificed his scholarship this season to remain on the team, I can't think of a better story in college basketball right now.
Arizona seems to have settled into a situation where sophomore Wise will be running the point in crunch time. While Wise still has room to grow in terms of over penetration and pulling the trigger when he's open for the shot, he has proven to be Arizona's most reliable ball handler. Today, he did an outstanding job of breaking Texas A&M's press during the closing minutes while converting all four critical free throws late.
For a point guard to be effective, they must do four things. One, play defense. Wise has this down cold as he's an outstanding on-ball defender who has proven to be very disrupting in providing help when the ball goes inside. Two and three, limit turnovers and control tempo. Check and check. Four, get assists. Tonight he only had three but for a majority of the game, Bayless was in such a zone that he was the one handling the ball until the waning minutes. Wise is quick and elusive and is a beast in handling the ball against pressure. While he's not a scoring threat and still has to learn exactly what is and what is not too much dribbling, his presence on the court is freeing up Bayless to do his thing from the two-spot.
With the victory, Arizona improves to 5-2 on the season. Up next is a trip to Chicago to play Illinois on a so-called neutral court. Much like Arizona, Illinois is 5-2 with victories over the teams they should beat. Their two losses came against Duke and Maryland.
Both teams have no games between now and their showdown Saturday morning at noon, eastern.