DAILY DISH: Is Arizona a Final Four contender?

By: Kels Dayton

Mark Lyons and the 'Cats just may be Final Four contenders. (AP/Jim Miller)

Mark Lyons and the ‘Cats just may be Final Four contenders. (AP/Jim Miller)

The non-conference schedule couldn’t have gone much better for Arizona, which has reeled off 12 straight wins and risen to No. 3 in the country as a result. The Wildcats beat San Diego State on a block at the buzzer by Nick Johnson in the championship of the Diamond Head Classic, and knocked off Florida by a point in Tuscon after a thrilling comeback. This was supposed to be a good year for the Wildcats, but it’s turning into an outstanding year. Senior guard Mark Lyons has done a terrific job providing leadership and some scoring (he leads the team at 13.4 points per game).

Senior forward Solomon Hill has lived up to preseason expectations, posting 12.7 points, 5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. But the emergence of sophomore Nick Johnson has been the biggest reason why the Wildcats have emerged from the non-conference slate unbeaten. The 6-3 guard has done everything for Arizona, forcing a steal knocking down a huge shot in the rally against Florida and making the block with time running out against San Diego State. If he continues to play like this, Arizona has a legitimate shot at making a deep NCAA run. And things should only get better next year, when ‘Zona brings in one of the top-rated recruiting classes in the country.  It’s official–Sean Lyons has done a terrific job in replacing Lute Olson.

Speaking of replacing legends, Connecticut made the right move by locking up head coach Kevin Ollie . UConn gave Ollie a new five-year deal, making him the permanent replacement for Jim Calhoun. It didn’t make sense to hire him for seven months and “assess his performance”, whether athletic director Warde Manuel was assessing or not. That move hurt recruiting, and could have stunted the program’s long-term growth. Regardless, Ollie has done a fantastic job of keeping the Huskies focused and getting them to play hard, even without the NCAA Tournament carrot waiting at the end of the season.

UConn has played inspired basketball, and they showed old-school UConn grit in defeating Washington, 61-53 at home on Saturday. Ollie’s Huskies are 10-2 heading into conference play, with their only losses coming to a 13-1 New Mexico team that went into Cincinnati and beat the 8th-ranked Bearcats, and an ACC championship contender in NC State. Shabazz Napier (16.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.8 apg) has played well, and Ryan Boatright (15.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) has been even better. This team is only a couple of possessions away from being 12-0, and should be just fine once conference play starts next week. Expect the Huskies to start strong; it wouldn’t be a surprise if this team wins 10 or more Big East games.

Shabazz Muhammad has lived up to his preseason billing in the past four games. (Debby Wong/US Presswire)

Shabazz Muhammad has lived up to his preseason billing in the past four games. (Debby Wong/US Presswire)

UCLA had a rough start to the season, losing to Cal-Poly at home, but the Bruins have rebounded behind freshman sensation Shabazz Muhammad. The 6-6 swingman carried UCLA to an overtime win over No. 7 Missouri, scoring 27 and virtually putting the team on his back, Greg-Jennings-in-Madden-style. Muhammad has put up 25, 21, 27, and 27 in his last four games, all UCLA wins.

Muhammad came into the season with Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and Kevin Love-type expectations for his freshman year, and even though the Bruins lost two of the first three games he played in (including that head-scratching home loss to Cal-Poly), he’s living up to the expectations. He’s averaging 19.6 points per, and ESPN even named him the National Player of the Week. We’d have to agree. The Bruins still have the opportunity to accomplish everything they wanted to this season, and a signature win over a top-10 team helps to erase the bad non-conference start.

Kansas was a RoundballDaily preseason Top 5 team, and at 11-1, the Jayhawks certainly look like they are going to live up to that billing. Even though the Jayhawks lost to Michigan State early in the season, Kansas has been the nation’s most impressive team to date. Sure, KU lost Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson from last year’s national runner up, but the ‘Hawks have replaced that production with stud freshman Ben McLemore, who is averaging 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. McLemore is a tremendous athlete, high-flying dunker and deadly shooter, and he’s got an opportunity to challenge for National Freshman of the Year honors.

Kansas is improving every game, and this team could be downright scary come March. The Jayhawks flat-out embarassed a good Colorado team in Allen Fieldhouse a couple of weeks ago, and won in Columbus last Saturday. Like Duke, the Jayhawks are incredible at home. If the NCAA Tournament were held in Lawrence, Kansas would probably be 25-time defending champions. They’ll blow out Temple next weekend before starting conference play. Anything less than a ninth-straight Big XII title would be a disappointment. But with Jeff Withey (13.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Travis Releford (13.3 ppg, 3.2 apg) playing as well as they are, and Elijah Johnson (10.1 ppg, 4.9 apg) emerging as a well-rounded playmaker, this team is going to be tough to beat the rest of the way.


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