Sean Miller can see the light at the end of top-ranked Arizona's nonconference tunnel. The big names are out of the way, but Miller said putting the bow on his team's 11-0 start to the season is "never, ever easy."
And he received an up-close look last season at the Wildcats' next opponent, Southern University, which may be four games under .500 but has five losses with a margin of seven points or less - including two in overtime.
It was a similar story last season, when both teams in Salt Lake City to open the NCAA tournament. The Jaguars, a No. 16 seed, were in a one-point game with top-seeded Gonzaga at the 2:28 mark before losing, 64-58.
Miller said Southern (3-7) could be a "very dangerous game," and focus will be key against a battle-tested team that has been in its share of close contests away from home.
Thursday's tipoff at McKale Center is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"I look at their scores and I think they have some losses this year," Miller said. "But I don't know if we've played a team that's played more close games on the road. You look at the scores, they're losing at the buzzer of they're losing in overtime or they're playing a team really tough."
The Wildcats are coming off another statement win, rallying from an 11-point second-half deficit on the road at Michigan, 72-70. Four Wildcats scored in double figures, led by Brandon Ashley's 18 points, and Nick Johnson made six free throws in the final 24 seconds to seal the win.
With just two games remaining against inferior competition before the start of Pac-12 Conference play, the Wildcats are not looking ahead to some time off just yet. Miller said his players have to navigate through final exams and the distraction that comes with being the No. 1 team in the country.
"This is actually as crucial a part of our season and a unique part of our season as we'll have," Miller said. "It's really everybody in college basketball. The nonconference year is winding down, all of us have a few weeks left.
"We have two home games left - Southern and Northern Arizona - and we have a true Christmas break where our players will all have a chance to get home for about three-and-a-half days, which I think will be great. Kind of fill their buckets, so to speak, and get ready for conference play."
UA has won 25 consecutive nonconference regular-season games and is 34-4 at home OOC in Miller's five seasons. Opponents are shooting just 37.5 percent and averaging 59.1 points this season.
But the Wildcats will be without 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, who returned in the win over the Wolverines after spraining his right ankle in the second half. Tarczewski was officially scratched less than an hour before tipoff after his status was questionable throughout the week.
In his place, UA will go small and turn to 6-7 reserve forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, while seldom-used 6-10 center Matt Korcheck will likely serve as the backup to Ashley in the middle.
Southern is averaging just 58.8 points in regulation, with four consecutive losses against Division I opponents. The Jaguars are led by YonDarius Johnson's 13.8 points, including 20 in a 107-64 win over NAIA program Dillard last Saturday.
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