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.
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.
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.