The 2011-12 college basketball season hasn’t even started yet, and already we have an entry for the year’s biggest upset. In an early exhibition game Thursday night, Division II Seattle Pacific University traveled to Tucson and stunned the Arizona Wildcats by a 69-68 final.
When I settled in to watch the game, it was strictly to scout Arizona’s new-look lineup. Quickly, SPU served notice that this wouldn’t be your usual exhibition blowout. Using a series of three-pointers from Jobi Wall and potent backdoor cuts, the Falcons took an early lead. The expected Wildcat run before halftime never came, and SPU carried an improbable 37-29 advantage to the break.
Arizona finally turned up the pressure after falling behind by double digits. A 12-2 run gave the Wildcats their first lead since the early minutes and got the McKale Center on its feet. Yet SPU refused to fold, calmly beating pressure and working the ball in to 7-footer Andy Poling (a Gonzaga transfer) for scores in the paint. Down three in the closing seconds, Arizona used a layup by freshman Nick Johnson to get within one, then forced a steal when the Falcons tried to run out the clock rather than taking their chances at the line. As time ran out, Johnson took a hurried, contested three-pointer from the top of the key that came up well short and SPU had the upset.
It would be difficult to overstate how unlikely this result was. Seattle Pacific actually beat a pair of Division I teams on the road in exhibitions last year, including Nevada, but those weren’t exactly ranked opponents. Meanwhile, the last time the Wildcats lost an exhibition game at home, Ronald Reagan was in office. In his first term. (It was 1983, against Athletes in Action.)
What does this loss mean for Arizona’s season? Not much. You’ll recall the panic when Syracuse lost to Le Moyne in an exhibition two years ago. The Orange responded by winning their first 13 games that counted, going 28-3 in the regular season, and advancing to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats played a lot like a team with four freshman in their rotation, while veterans like senior guard Kyle Fogg appeared to be going through the motions.
Still, Arizona should be concerned about replacing Derrick Williams in the middle. None of Sean Miller’s three options–slow-footed junior Kyryl Natyazhko and raw freshmen Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson–looked like the answer against SPU. Johnson fouled out in 14 minutes and the three players combined for just two rebounds. The Falcons rebounded 43 percent of their own misses and made 61.8 percent of their two-point attempts. And while Poling has D-I size, what happens when the Wildcats face UCLA’s frontcourt? Unless Arizona can figure out how to control the paint, preseason picks that have them atop the Pac-12 are overly optimistic.