"Being No. 1 is something that I think everybody always dreams about."
Those were the words Jason Gardner, the former Arizona point guard, told GOAZCATS.com on the eve of the current Wildcats' bid to become the program's first No. 1-ranked team since his 2002-03 squad.
"It's just something that's great to experience sometime during your college career," said Gardner, whose team held the spot for the first six weeks of the season, and 13 overall - the last during the week of March 10, 2003.
After climbing up the polls in each of the last four weeks - and starting as low as sixth in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 - head coach Sean Miller's Wildcats are looking up at just one team. The thoughts have danced through their minds, too, and those dreams could become reality when the new polls are released next Monday.
Michigan State, ranked No. 1 in the AP and coaches' polls each of the last three weeks, is on the verge of dropping after a 79-65 home loss to North Carolina on Wednesday. One Arizona victory over UNLV will likely cement that and end Arizona's decade-long absence from the top spot.
The second-ranked Wildcats (8-0) will play host to the upset-minded Runnin' Rebels (3-3) in a 3:15 p.m. MT tipoff Saturday at McKale Center. The expected sellout crowd will be dressed appropriately for a "white out" contest that UA has lost each of the last two seasons.
"We've talked as a team. I think it's a healthy thing to talk about and it's something that I think we all have to take a look at," Miller, in his fifth season, said after his team's 79-58 win over Texas Tech.
"Sometimes in your sporting life, an opportunity knocks that doesn't come around very often - if ever. To have a chance to be ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation is something that I think all of us would feel really good about."
UA's balanced attack was paced by star freshman Aaron Gordon's career-high 19 points and Brandon Ashley's 18 and 10 rebounds. The Wildcats also matched a season high with 10 3-pointers led by a 4-of-6 display from leading scorer Nick Johnson, who is averaging 17.1 points this season.
The 50 percent shooting night from the field was directed by point guard T.J. McConnell, who dished out a season-high 10 assists, moving the junior up to sixth in the country at 6.9 per game.
As a team, the Wildcats also outrebounded the Red Raiders, 43-23, increasing the nation's fourth-best rebounding margin to 14.4 per game over opponents.
The Rebels' top rebounder, Roscoe Smith, grabbed 19 boards in a 30-point win over Tennessee-Martin last Saturday, snapping a two-game skid. The redshirt junior, who added 13 points for his fourth double-double of the season, also happens to lead the country with 16.2 rebounds.
Smith, a transfer, was a starter on the 2011 national champion Connecticut team that eliminated Arizona to advance to the Final Four. Perhaps those memories contributed to Smith's bold comments about the Wildcats.
"We're definitely not intimidated by them, at all. Shockingly, they're probably intimidated by us," Smith said after the win over Tennessee-Martin.
But topping the Wildcats will be no easy task as they seek their 13th consecutive nonconference home win. Simply scoring on them this season has been difficult, too. Opponents are shooting just 35.8 percent and averaging 59.3 points, the nation's fifth- and 12th-best marks, respectively.
UNLV, picked to finish second in the Mountain West Conference, will counter with four double-figure scorers led by junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones' 12.8 points. Junior forward Khem Birch is one of two Rebels, along with Smith, averaging a double-double with 11 points and 10.2 rebounds to go with 4.7 blocks - the second-best average in the country.
UNLV head coach Dave Rice said he is "pleased" with his team's "tremendous improvement" at both ends of the floor despite a slow start to the season - which includes losses to UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State and Illinois.
Rice said the contest against the Wildcats, his team's first on the road this season, will be a "huge opportunity" to knock off a program that defeated then-No. 6 Duke in last week's NIT Season Tip-Off championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
"But (Arizona) is a team we feel like we have an opportunity to go in and certainly compete with," he added.
The last time the two teams met, the Rebels won a 74-72 double-overtime road contest in 2009 - Miller's first season in Tucson.
This season's game will be the first of a four-year agreement between the programs.
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Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor