Sunday Basketball Brunch: Arizona poised for No. 1 rise

Sunday Basketball Brunch: Arizona poised for No. 1 rise
Arizona Wildcats forward Aaron Gordon (11), guard Nick Johnson (13), guard T.J. McConnell (4), and forward Brandon Ashley (21) walk on the court during the second half against the UNLV Rebels at McKale Center. The Wildcats won 63-58.
  • Arizona escaped with a 63-58 victory over UNLV on Saturday and appears poised to rise to No. 1 in the polls.
  • Kansas fell to Colorado on a buzzer-beating three-pointer and have now lost two of their last three games.
  • Massachusetts point guard Chaz Williams finished with 32 points and 15 assists to lift the Minutemen over BYU.
  • THE FIRST WORD: What does it take to be No. 1?

    For Arizona, it took just one more unconvincing win.

    The soon-to-be-atop-the-poll Wildcats put the finishing touches on their résumé Saturday night, escaping a scrappy UNLV team with a narrow 63-58 victory thanks to a gutsy performance from transfer T.J. McConnell, the point guard who has emerged as the glue that sticks this Final Four-caliber group together.

    A month into the season, the dominoes have fallen for Arizona to step in as the best team in the country. Should we be so surprised? The Wildcats haven’t completely flown under the radar, and the ingredients are there. They have a capable go-to scorer in Nick Johnson, a heady point guard with exceptional leadership in McConnell and a high-motor freshman capable of game-changing plays at any instant in Aaron Gordon. The one thing this group has mastered, though, that other teams haven’t at this point in the season is chemistry.

    Most predicted championship-capable teams have suffered major hiccups. Kentucky’s youth continues to limit its abundance of talent, evidenced in a recent loss to Baylor. Kansas has lost two of its past three games, with setbacks to Villanova and Colorado. Duke struggled to make up for its lack of size in losses to Kansas and Arizona. Undefeated teams Ohio State (which rolled over Central Connecticut on Saturday) and Syracuse (which crushed Binghamton on Saturday) are worthy contenders, but their non-conference victories aren’t as spectacular as Arizona’s.

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    And Michigan State is sure to drop in the rankings after losing to North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The veteran-laden Spartans seemed poised to rule for a while after dethroning preseason No. 1 Kentucky early on in the Champion’s Classic, but a topsy-turvy UNC squad exploited weaknesses.

    That leaves us with Arizona, the No. 1 team by default and also based on merit.

    QUOTE TO NOTE:”I think it’s something we feel like we’ve earned. We know that being ranked No. 1 doesn’t mean that we won the championship or the season’s now over, but I’m not going to play the negative card at all. … To be ranked No. 1 is maybe the greatest compliment you can have.” — Arizona coach Sean Miller after his Wildcats survived UNLV’s upset bid.

    HIGHLIGHT REEL: Askia Booker’s NBA hop step + three-pointer at the buzzer lifted Colorado to a program-building victory over No. 7 Kansas.

    STAR WATCH: Chaz Williams, UMass. The do-everything point guard had 32 points and 15 assists to go along with one turnover in the Minutemen’s 105-96 victory over BYU. In case no one noticed, UMass is undefeated at 8-0 and one of the top surprise teams in this young season. Williams has plenty to do with that, and his 5-9 stature only adds intrigue to watch him play more. He’s lightning quick and this UMass team is positioning itself to be a top contender in the Atlantic 10.

    WINNERS, LOSERS: Breaking down the victories that matter the most and the losses that stain résumés the worst.

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  • Wisconsin (Win vs. Marquette): Following a 70-64 victory over Marquette, the Badgers improved to 10-0 and offer an impressive résumé after beating Virginia, Saint Louis, West Virginia, Florida, Notre Dame and St. John’s. It’s a phenomenal start for Bo Ryan’s group, which is off to its best start since the Badgers went 11-0 in the 1993-94 season.
  • Villanova (Win vs. St. Joe’s): Jayvaughn Pinkston had 27 points in Villanova’s 98-68 victory against St. Joe’s, which comes on the heels of the Wildcats’ Battle 4 Atlantis title. With Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown off to sluggish starts, it’s not a far off assumption to proclaim Jay Wright’s group as the best in the Big East.
  • Missouri (Win vs. UCLA): If there was any doubt if this team could be an NCAA tourney team and an SEC challenger, Saturday’s 80-71 win against the Bruins put it to rest. Missouri’s three-headed monster in the backcourt made up of Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross combined for 63 points and rode hot second-half shooting to pick up an impressive win.
  • Iowa State (Win vs. UNI): The Cyclones escaped a gritty Northern Iowa squad 91-82 in overtime. ISU climbed back from an 18-point second half deficit and used a 23-2 run to take the lead late in the game before UNI’s Seth Tuttle made this ridiculous bank shot to force overtime. Luckily, Fred Hoiberg’s group kept the momentum and put the game away in the extra frame.
  • Losers.

  • Temple (Loss vs. Texas): After storming back from a 16-point deficit against Texas, the Owls lost on Javan Felix’s three-pointer with nine seconds left, falling 81-80 in overtime to the Longhorns. The game could have gone to a second OT, but Dalton Pepper’s free throw was waved off because of a lane violation on his second free throw. Meanwhile, Texas is a surprising 8-1.
  • Virginia (Loss vs. Green Bay): For the second consecutive season, the Cavaliers are struggling to beat mid-major teams that they need to beat for reasons that matter in March. Granted, Green Bay is an under-the-radar team but these glaring losses have the power to wash away prominent losses once ACC play starts up, something Virginia found out last season when their bubble burst.
  • Dayton (Loss vs. Illinois State): The Flyers, No. 25 in the AP poll and almost ranked in the coaches poll, coughed up an ugly 81-75 road loss to Illinois State, a likely bottom-feeder in the Missouri Valley this season.
  • Cincinnati (Loss to New Mexico): The Bearcats lost their first game of the season, coming up short in a hostile environment against a strong New Mexico team favored to win the Mountain West.
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    ON DECK: A look at the best matchups to watch on Sunday. All times Eastern.

    — Virginia Tech at Miami (12:30 p.M., ESPNU).

    — Washington at San Diego State (3:05 p.M., CBS).

    — Ole Miss at Oregon (5 p.M., ESPNU).

    — Nebraska at Creighton (6:07 p.M., Fox Sports 1).

    — Boston College at USC (7 p.M., Pac-12 Network).

    Also worth following: Oklahoma vs. George Mason (1 p.M.), Auburn vs. Illinois (3 p.M.).

    Scott Gleeson, a national college basketball writer/producer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.