Saturday Takeaways: Could Arizona's late escape at UNLV be a turning point?

Arizona rallied from 13 down to salvage a victory at UNLV. (AP)

A full Saturday of college basketball started with the smoldering Xavier-Cincinnati rivalry flaring up anew and ended with underachieving Arizona engineering an unlikely escape to avoid its fourth loss in five games.

Here are some takeaways from those two games and some of the marquee matchups in between:

 

1. TONIGHT WAS A BABY STEP FORWARD FOR STRUGGLING ARIZONA

With a show of tenacity that was utterly lacking in the Bahamas last week, Arizona narrowly avoided a fourth loss in 10 days.

The Wildcats clawed back from a 13-point second-half deficit Saturday night at UNLV and edged the Rebels 91-88 in overtime.

An outcome like this wouldn’t normally be a sign of progress for college basketball’s preseason No. 2 team, but Arizona desperately needed this result. The Wildcats dropped three straight games at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament Thanksgiving weekend, falling to NC State and SMU in the opening two rounds before getting clobbered by 25 against Purdue.

Many of the flaws that contributed to those losses were on display during the first half Saturday night in Las Vegas. Arizona shot 1-for-11 from behind the arc, got zero points from any of its freshmen aside from DeAndre Ayton and made so many defensive miscues that UNLV shot 57.1 percent as a team.

Defense remained hit and miss in the second half, but Arizona at least hit its stride offensively.  Ayton dominated around the rim as he has all season, Allonzo Trier attacked the basket instead of settling for contested jump shots and Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Brandon Randolph both hit a pair of 3-pointers apiece, effectively spacing the floor for the team’s star twosome.

What also helped was that Sean Miller largely abandoned the idea of playing Ayton alongside 7-footer Dusan Ristic, a defensive nightmare against quick frontcourts who can exploit that duo in transition and off the dribble. Ristic is a skilled center and a useful player who deserves better than a bit role, but Arizona is best with him most spelling Ayton rather than playing with him.

2. WISCONSIN’S NCAA TOURNAMENT STREAK IS IN MAJOR JEOPARDY

The notion that Wisconsin’s narrow early losses against quality opponents were nothing to worry about has been exposed as a myth.

It’s time for the Badgers to press the panic button after they fell to 3-5 this season with an 83-58 home loss to Ohio State, the same school that would go on to break their hearts on the football field in the Big Ten title game a few hours later.

Shoddy defense unexpectedly emerged as Wisconsin’s biggest problem on Saturday as Ohio State shot 78 percent from the field in the first half thanks to a parade of uncontested layups and wide-open 3-pointers. The Buckeyes didn’t cool off in the second half until their lead was an astonishing 35 points.

Wisconsin had no chance to keep pace with Ohio State given its season-long trouble finding shooters to space the floor surrounding Ethan Happ.  When Ohio State repeatedly double-teamed Happ, the other Badgers were unable to make him pay. Wisconsin shot 38.8 percent from the field and had no one besides Brad Davison who scored more than 10 points.

An occasional blowout loss to an elite team on the road is excusable, but this was at the Kohl Center and Ohio State is mediocre at best. More so than previous losses to Xavier, Baylor, UCLA and Virginia, this was a sign that Wisconsin’s 19-year run of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is in serious jeopardy.

3. XAVIER PROVED IT’S THE KINGS OF THE QUEEN CITY

When unheralded Arizona State piled up 102 points against Xavier nine days ago in Las Vegas, it was reasonable to ask questions about both teams. Were the Sun Devils vastly underrated or were the Musketeers more flawed than their preseason top 20 ranking suggested?

Xavier’s response has shown this really may be Chris Mack’s best team of his tenure. The Musketeers outclassed Baylor on Tuesday and followed that up by bagging an emphatic 89-76 victory over rival Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon.

While the game itself has been overshadowed by the postgame incident between Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and Xavier guard J.P. Macura and the war of words it inspired, Xavier’s performance prior to that was truly impressive. The 89 points the Musketeers scored were the most anyone has tallied against the Bearcats since .Feb. 11, 2012.

All-American candidate Trevon Bluiett emerged from a mini-slump to erupt for 28 points on only 14 shots. Quentin Goodin dished out eight assists, Macura and Kaiser Gates provided the threat of perimeter shooting and Kerem Kanter, Tyrique Jones and Sean O’Mara combined for 31 points on the interior.

Xavier led by as many as 23 points in the second half and never allowed Cincinnati to trim the deficit to single digits. It was a dominant performance that suggested the Musketeers will once again provide Villanova’s toughest competition in the Big East.

4. THE AAC MAY SOON TRANSFORM THE POWER SIX INTO THE MAJOR SEVEN

The addition of Wichita State has tightened the gap between the American Athletic Conference and college basketball’s top six leagues.

The AAC now has two legitimate top 15 teams this season in Wichita State and Cincinnati as well as a handful of other programs with legitimate NCAA tournament aspirations.

While Cincinnati suffered its first loss of the season, three other upper-echelon AAC programs each bagged notable wins. Wichita State outlasted Baylor in Waco behind five Conner Frankamp 3-pointers,  Houston demolished Arkansas despite a pedestrian day from star guard Rob Gray and SMU avenged last year’s NCAA tournament loss by pounding USC.

Those wins solidify the AAC as no worse than the nation’s seven best conference and boost its hopes of putting four or five teams into the NCAA tournament. Cincinnati and Wichita State are near-locks and SMU, Houston, Temple and UConn all have hope of joining them.

Of course the AAC can’t reach its full potential until UConn and Memphis regain national relevance. The Huskies needed rallies to survive Columbia and Monmouth this week, while it took double OT for Memphis to put away Mercer on Saturday.

6. WASHINGTON STATE’S RESURGENCE WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED

Washington State’s unexpected college basketball relevance didn’t last long.

Six days after winning the Wooden Legacy tournament with victories over Saint Joseph’s, Saint Mary’s and San Diego State, the Cougars plummeted back to earth with a home loss against a Big West school that hadn’t beaten a high-major opponent in 12 years.

UC Davis stomped Washington State 81-67 on Saturday afternoon, opening a 23-point lead early in the second half and never letting the Cougars get any closer than nine. Washington State had rallied from behind in most of its previous wins this season.

The takeaway from this outcome is that while Washington State is improved, they’re not yet ready to compete for an upper-echelon Pac-12 finish or an NCAA tournament bid. Those victories last week may have been a little misleading as Saint Mary’s has major defensive issues to sort out and San Diego State was missing two of its best players.

Could Washington State finish a few rungs above where it was projected in a Pac-12 that appears way down this season? Absolutely. But unless some other scorers emerge in support of Robert Franks and Malachi Flynn, there’s a ceiling to what the Cougars can accomplish.

6. RHODE ISLAND A BRIGHT SPOT FOR THE FLAILING ATLANTIC 10

In what is so far shaping up to be a down season for the Atlantic 10, only one team has assembled the foundation for an NCAA tournament resume.

That’s Rhode Island, which edged in-state rival Providence 75-68 on Saturday to bag perhaps its most important win of the season so far.

Not only had Providence won seven straight games in the series between the two teams, the Friars also represent a quality win for the Rams. Providence has enough perimeter talent to challenge for a upper-half finish in the Big East and a return to the NCAA tournament.

While Rhode Island has suffered losses against surging Virginia and Mountain West favorite Nevada, the Rams also have avoided any bad losses and have secured marquee wins against Seton Hall and now Providence. That’s a pretty good start for a team that has been without injured standout guard E.C. Matthews for all but part of the Nevada game.

That Rhode Island is off to a strong start should come as no surprise considering the Rams return a handful of key players from last year’s breakout season. Rhode Island defeated VCU in the Atlantic 10 tournament title game last March, secured its first NCAA tournament bid in 19 years and defeated Creighton in the opening round before suffering a narrow loss to eventual Final Four team Oregon.

As Rhode Island continues to perform like an NCAA tournament team this season, the big question in AAC circles is whether anyone from the league will join the Rams. St. Bonaventure is the only other team in the league with fewer than three losses, not a great start for a conference accustomed to sending at least 4 or 5 teams .to the NCAA tournament.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!