By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now
Arizona looked like Arizona last week in the big home win over Utah, dominating, suffocating, making it seem easy.
That's the team, finally, everyone expected to see this season.
Now, it's not realistic for the seventh-ranked Wildcats to show up with their energy meter so fully charged, to be so diabolically efficient (well, at least after the first five minutes) every time their Nikes hit the hardcourt. It's a long season, filled with up to 40 games, and college basketball is not a sprint: It's a marathon on a rollercoaster. There are moments when you get queasy.
The important takeaway from the 69-51 win over the Utes is that when coach Sean Miller challenges his Wildcats -- calls them out and tells them they're underdogs -- they can respond like a pitcher reaching back for a few extra miles per hour on his fastball when there are no outs and the bases are loaded.
And the Cats better do it again Thursday night.
Arizona is on the road at Maples Pavilion to take on a Stanford team that is 9-0 at home, 13-4 overall, is coming off a home win over UConn, has won at Texas and is ranked No. 25 nationally in the coaches' poll. And the Cardinal has the Pac-12's leading scorer in point guard Chasson Randle, who is averaging 19.8 points per game and is in the thick of the discussion to be the conference's player of the year.
"I think he's one of the best point guards, not even in the Pac-12, in the country," said Arizona's T.J. McConnell. "I don't think he gets enough credit for how good he is."
McConnell quickly added that Randle is just now starting to get all due credit, and the Stanford senior could earn many more national atta-boys with a win at the Wildcats' expense.
Nobody said the Pac-12 road would be easy.
"We don't want to make anything bigger than it needs to right now," Miller said. "It's not easy in the Pac-12 to win both road games."
Dating to the start of the 2012-13 season, Arizona has lost at least once in six of its nine two-game road trips within conference play.
The Cats (16-2 overall, 4-1 Pac-12) have won nine consecutive games over Stanford, but they split the Bay Area trip last season, dropping the game at Cal, when Brandon Ashley suffered his season-ending foot injury and Justin Cobbs hit a step-back jumper with one second left to sully UA's 21-0 start.
Stanford is the tougher of the Bay duo this season, led by the veteran core of Randle and a pair of fifth-year seniors in guard Andy Brown (15.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 46.3 percent 3-point shooting) and center Stefan Nastic (13.9 points, 7.2 rebounds).
Miller called Nastic "maybe one of the most improved players in the country."
"They're having a great season, and the reason is they're a really good team," Miller said. "Stanford is going to be in this year's NCAA Tournament and they're very capable of winning our conference."
That has been a spot reserved for Arizona, the overwhelming preseason favorite, and there were signs last week that the Wildcats are settling into the role.
McConnell has been much more aggressive in conference play, hitting 29 of 51 shots; Ashley last week was more active near the basket, not settling for long jumpers; Rondae Hollis-Jefferson locked down Utah's Delon Wright, another conference player of the year candidate; Stanley Johnson, inch by inch, is becoming the easy-offense scorer that the Cats desperately need.
He has reached at least 17 points in five of the past nine games, with only one real stinker in that stretch -- seven points on 2 of 4 shooting at Oregon State. He's due for a big effort in a true road game, having shot 12 of 32 in four games (UTEP, UNLV, Oregon, Oregon State), and getting into costly early foul trouble vs. the Beavers.
"I think the important thing to realize about Stanley is he's a freshman. He's 19 years old," Miller said.
"There is a lot expected of him, and he has high expectations of himself, and he's a very essential and talented player in our program. But every time he's done something here for the first time, it's in fact the first time, and that is never to your advantage as a player.
"To his credit, he's learning, and he's a smarter player. He knows what to expect more. When you watch him play, I think things happen within the framework of our team easier for him right now than maybe ever before. The key is to continue to do it whether the games are at home or on the road."
Johnson had 18 points and nine rebounds vs. Utah -- all in the second half -- which was the best half of basketball for an Arizona player since ... well, since McConnell's first half against Utah. It sure looked like the pieces were coming together last Saturday, but today is a different day.
"It's going to be a tough game, no matter where you are and who you're playing on the road, but especially a team like Stanford," McConnell said. "They're going to really test us."