Call Arizona’s victory over No. 7 North Carolina on Friday a confidencebuilder or proof the Wildcats could succeed in some games without Miles Simon.
But don’t call it an upset.
“I don’t think it was,” UA assistant coach Jessie Evans said. “It was two powerhouse programs tipping it off, and we showed we are a little further ahead than they are. We just beat them out of the block - that’s all.”
North Carolina coach Dean Smith was not kidding when he said last week that “maybe it would be good for us to get blown out so we can wake up.”
He was not being coy about his team lacking chemistry.
By all indications, the Tar Heels were undeserving of their lofty ranking when they played No. 19 Arizona in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic. These factors were working against North Carolina:
Makhtar Ndiaye, a power forward out because of possible NCAA violations relating to illegal benefits, was sorely missed as a banger for rebounds.
North Carolina’s frontcourt, rated as the fourth-best in the nation by The Sporting News, was outplayed by Arizona’s maligned, inexperienced front line.
“They always talk about how other teams are going to exploit our frontcourt,” said A.J. Bramlett, who was one of six Wildcats to pull down at least five rebounds. “They never talk about me. They never talk about Donnell (Harris). You hear all that, and you take it personal.”
Nobody thought Harris, who had nine rebounds, would outrebound Antawn Jamison, who finished with seven. Jamison’s early foul trouble restricted him, and it appeared to deflate the Tar Heels emotionally. Serge Zwikker, the 7-foot-2 center, is slow to begin with, and his sprained ankle made him practically useless against Arizona’s wiry, athletic inside players. He and the other role players for North Carolina were nonexistent.
“We couldn’t get it done as a team,” Jamison said. “This is something we did not want to repeat from last year. For some reason, we couldn’t all come together.”
Apparently, the stigma from last year’s 92-73 loss to Texas Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament remains. The Tar Heels, who lost their first season opener in 13 years, shook their heads a lot and for the most part exhibited frustration against Arizona.
Just like Arizona, North Carolina is very young. Zwikker is the only senior, and although he started, he played only 24 minutes. Jamison and Vince Carter, both sophomores, are good enough to make up for the inexperience, but when they have offnights like Friday, North Carolina is in trouble.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “Arizona exposed our inexperience. They had much better execution.”
The Wildcats are also inexperienced, and they had no returning starters with Simon out. But UA coach Lute Olson has successfully made freshman Mike Bibby and his teammates know who’s in charge. There are no doubts about Bibby’s role, or questions about anybody else’s role, for that matter.
Bibby, who already has an air of confidence, looked in control thanks to Olson’s continuous insistence that he be talkative even if it means offering criticism.
“This is a great win for us with all the young guys we got, and to have our verbal leader out was not an easy adjustment,” Olson said. “But as the game went on, we got better leadership with young guys that before would be standing around waiting for Miles to tell them something.”
It was hard to tell who was in charge with North Carolina. Jamison normally would be, but the Tar Heels looked lost with him playing tentatively because of his foul trouble.
“Would I call this an improbable win? I don’t think so,” UA assistant Jim Rosborough said. “Certainly without Miles, things can be a little shaky, but we’ve worked hard all preseason. We have real good balance.”
What will UA take from the victory? Knowing they are part of history, becoming only the eighth school to have a winning record against Smith? The Wildcats are 2-1 against the winningest active coach in college basketball.
More importantly, the Wildcats “took a big step toward our goal to win a Pac-10 title,” Jason Terry said. “The Pac-10 is tough this year. A game like this will help us in those tough Pac-10 games.” The first real test in that regard might come Saturday at The Pit in Albuquerque. UA plays NAU at McKale Center on Tuesday first, but the Wildcats will learn how far they’ve come and how much work needs to be done playing in a hostile environment in Albuquerque.