Arizona Wildcats’ success vs. ranked opponents in hostile arenas benchmark of program


Lute Olson was 0-6 against ranked opponents in true road games with Arizona before he coached the Wildcats to a 66-59 win over his former school, third-ranked Iowa, at Iowa City on Dec. 12, 1987.

That was in Olson’s fifth season, the year he took Arizona to its first Final Four. Olson lost his next five against ranked opponents in enemy territory culminated by that infamous loss to LSU and the dancing Shaquille O’Neal in 1990 in Baton Rouge.

Olson was 22-24 thereafter, establishing the kind of toughness Arizona required at a ranked opponent’s arena.

In Sean Miller’s seventh season with Arizona, he is now 2-2 against ranked teams in true road games with today’s 68-63 win at No. 13 Gonzaga. He achieved his first such victory last year at No. 13 Utah in a marquee Pac-12 game.

Miller has built on what Olson started with the nastiness — his term — required for a national power to maintain its stature.

He is at .500 in games Arizona has ventured to difficult environments against a ranked team. That does not include when the Wildcats won an early-morning game against a gritty, yet unranked Michigan team two years ago.

Miller was 0-2 against ranked opponents on the road in his first three seasons, losing at No. 20 Washington in 2010-11 and No. 12 Florida in 2011-12.

The cynics will say Miller has not scheduled as tough as Olson, which is not entirely fair.

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Gabe York (flanked by Jay Bilas, left, and Dan Shulman of ESPN) was the player of the game with his team-high 18 points, 14 in the second half in the 68-63 win at No. 13 Gonzaga (ESPN screen shot)

Gabe York (flanked by Jay Bilas, left, and Dan Shulman of ESPN) was the player of the game with his team-high 18 points, 14 in the second half in the 68-63 win at No. 13 Gonzaga (ESPN screen shot)

Miller has not been shy scheduling non-conference games at North Carolina State, Florida, Clemson, San Diego State, UTEP, UNLV and Gonzaga. It so happens not all these programs were ranked at the time they hosted the Wildcats. The same goes with the Pac-12 overall being in a down cycle with less amount of ranked teams in the Miller years.

Olson faced Stanford at its peak with Mike Montgomery and those ranked Cal teams with Jason Kidd. Oregon State had ranked teams in the A.C. Green and Gary Payton years. Ernie Kent coached ranked teams at Oregon. Lorenzo Romar had Washington rolling a little more than a decade ago. Washington State and ASU even had ranked teams during the Olson era.

It appears now that the Pac-12 is on an upswing with practically all of the teams competitive. Winning on the road in the conference has never been as daunting as Miller will experience this season.

But at least Miller knows that when his team is pushed to the edge, such as trailing by 10 points at halftime at Gonzaga, that players like Gabe York, Allonzo Trier and Ryan Anderson have that nastiness required to bring home a win.

It’s true: Since Olson’s 1-10 start against ranked opponents in hostile arenas, the Wildcats have won almost as many as they have lost in those environments.

Arizona has all those NBA alums, conference titles, NCAA tournament deep runs, etc., but its performance on the road in the last quarter-century against ranked opponents rates up there with all of that. publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He has also written articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.

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