GAME NOTES: In their first game as the No. 1 team in the nation, the Arizona Wildcats will play host to the New Mexico State Aggies at the McKale Center.
Although they rose to No. 3 last season, the Wildcats have not managed to attain the top spot in the national rankings since the 2002-03 campaign. Arizona certainly deserves the honor this season as they have sprinted out to a 9-0 start with impressive wins over No. 8 Duke and No. 25 San Diego State along the way. Arizona hits the road this Saturday for another major test against Michigan.
They may not have the accolades that the Wildcats have garnered, but the Aggies jumped out to a fast start to the year as well. However, after seven wins in eight games, that success has been tarnished a bit with the Aggies losing in three straight contests, including an 80-68 setback at nationally- ranked Gonzaga. This game is the second in a four-game road trip for New Mexico State, which continues against Drake on Saturday.
Although these teams have met 97 times previously, this is only the fourth matchup since 1975. Arizona leads the all-time series by a count of 59-38.
The Aggies fought hard on the road at Gonzaga, but fell short in the second half. New Mexico State was trailing by only a single point at halftime but then allowed Gonzaga to nail 64.5 percent of its field goal attempts in the final 20 minutes. The Aggies only hit on 41.4 percent of their shots after the break.
Although they really haven't shown it against superior competition, New Mexico State looks like a force to be reckoned with in the Western Athletic Conference. The Aggies lead the league in both scoring (77.3 ppg) and field-goal percentage (.477). Daniel Mullings (17.6 ppg, 3.5 apg) is responsible for a good portion of the scoring. Mullings finished with 17 points and five assists against Gonzaga, though he hit on just 5-of-14 shots from the field. DK Eldridge (11.5 ppg) is the only other double-figure scorer on the roster, though K.C. Ross-Miller (9.1 ppg, 3.6 apg), Sim Bhullar (9.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.5 bpg) and Tshilidzi Nephawe can't be ignored.
Arizona ascended to the No. 1 spot this week following a hard-fought, 63-58 victory over UNLV. The Wildcats only connected on 41.8 percent of their shots from the field, but outscored the Rebels, 44-22, in the paint. T.J. McConnell led the way with 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
The rise to the top has been paved by defensive excellence from Arizona. The Wildcats rank among the top 10 teams in the country in points allowed (59.1 ppg), opponent assists (8.7 pg) and opponent field-goal percentage (.368). On top of that the Wildcats own a massive +14.1 edge on the boards, ranking 18th nationally in rebounds (41.9 pg). Nick Johnson (16.6 ppg) and McConnell (7.2 ppg, 6.8 apg) have worked well together in the backcourt, with Johnson handling the scoring and McConnell running the offense from the point. Freshman Aaron Gordon (12 ppg, 9 rpg) has been scoring at a solid pace but his work on the boards has been more impressive. Brandon Ashley (12 ppg, 6.7 rpg) helps in the frontcourt and Rondae Hiolliss-Jefferson (8.8 ppg) is a spark plug off the bench.
The Wildcats have too much depth and play such a fundamentally strong brand of basketball that this game will be decided long before the final whistle.