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Handle it: Arizona Wildcats will be your new No. 1

Anthony Gimino Avatar
December 2, 2023
Arizona Wildcats center Oumar Ballo (11) celebrates a basket against the Colgate Raiders during the first half at McKale Center. Mandatory Credit: Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

Hello there, No. 1 ranking.

It’s been a while. Missed you.

When the new Associated Press poll comes out Monday, the Arizona Wildcats will have that coveted, elusive, enviable No. 1 before their name. Nice.

That path to the mountaintop cleared when current No. 1 Purdue was cut down by Northwestern on Friday night … and then No. 3 Marquette fell to Wisconsin (more on the Badgers later) on Saturday … and then Tommy Lloyd’s team deftly handled its own dang business later Saturday against Colgate.

No. 2 for the moment and unbeaten in seven games, Arizona pulled one of those old Road Runner “Beep Beep” moves after halftime, vrooming away and kicking up dust in the Raiders’ face. It was 35-30 at halftime. Then it was 55-33 eight minutes into the second half as Colgate plummeted off a cliff.

See ya. Arizona won 82-55.

Welcome to No. 1.

“I think it’s great,” Lloyd said of being the new numero uno.

“It’s what we want in this program. I think we’ve got to get comfortable being in this position. We’re not going to get big heads or make it too big of a deal, but when I came to this program, my dream was to make it one of the best in the country.

“And if you’re one of the best in the country, you’re going to stumble into being No. 1 once in a while. So — you know what? — handle it. And that’ll be the message.”

The Wildcats’ first time

It’s been a hot minute since Arizona was No. 1. Almost a decade. You have to go back to the week of Jan. 27, 2014, for the last time, which capped a program-record eight consecutive weeks in the top spot. The Wildcats split two games that week, winning at Stanford but then suffering their first loss after a 20-0 start to the season.

You know it as one of the great “What if?” moments in school story: Brandon Ashley suffered a foot injury early in the game at Cal, changing the course of the season, as the Bears won 60-58. The Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight, where they really missed Ashley in a loss to Wisconsin (still more on the Badgers later).

That was then. This is now. This new poll will mark the 39th week that Arizona will sit on top of the college basketball world.

The first time it happened, Tucson was head-over-heels in love: Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Tom Tolbert, Anthony Cook and Craig McMillan … and the Gumbys on the bench. It was Dec. 21, 1987.

It was a big enough deal – and so long ago when you consider the method of communication – that former Arizona basketball player and U.S. Representative Morris K. Udall sent a congratulations telegram to the team’s hotel in Moscow, Idaho, ahead of the Wildcats’ game at Washington State.

“Regardless of how long it lasts,” coach Lute Olson said in the Arizona Daily Star about the No. 1 ranking, “you can’t underrate the value of it for long-range effects on our program.”

Arizona went on to beat Washington State and then came home for a loaded Fiesta Bowl Basketball Classic, where the Wildcats knocked off Michigan State and Duke (hearing any echoes of that in 2023?).

This season, Arizona has earned its way to the top spot with victories over those very same programs, and these Cats are built for a run into early April.

Defense. Toughness. Rebounding. Athleticism. Size. Togetherness. Balanced offense. Sharing the ball. The ability to score at all three levels.

And a happy locker room.

“They’re grown-ups,” Pelle Larsson told the Pac-12 Network, talking about the culture around his teammates.

“They have a (good) mentality of how you receive criticism and how you give it. And if you build that trust, stuff comes easy. We just trust that everyone wants the best out of each other.”

PHNX Wildcats podcast host Mike Luke and guests break down Saturday’s win and the team’s soon-to-be new ranking.

It won’t be easy holding on to that No. 1 spot.

Arizona is back in action next Saturday against Wisconsin (these guys again!), and then comes three more pre-Christmas showdowns: Purdue in Indianapolis, Alabama in Phoenix and Florida Atlantic in Las Vegas.

Whew.

Just enjoy it and buckle your seat belts.*

*What a time to be an Arizona Wildcats fan. Ahem, football!

“At the end of the day, I don’t think Wisconsin cares,” Lloyd said of Arizona being No. 1.

“You’re going to have a hard game for 40 minutes against a really good time. If you’re No. 1, you don’t start out 5-0. You start zero-zero. We’ll just approach it like that.”

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Top photo: Arizona Wildcats center Oumar Ballo celebrates a basket against Colgate Raiders (Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports)

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