In the middle of a forgettable season of Pac-12 basketball, maybe it’s natural that occurrences peripheral to the games themselves stand out, and that’s what happened over the weekend.
Arizona went to the Bay Area and won two games, which, even in a down year for the league, is notable. But the Wildcats had another weird Thursday-night happening, and it’s becoming difficult to call the chain of events mere coincidence.
Here’s what we know: Back in December was the ugly brawl between Xavier and Cincinnati. ‘Zona coach Sean Miller (former Xavier coach) was asked about it and was quoted, “I’m really proud of those guys,” apparently referring to the fact the Musketeers didn’t back down. A couple of days later came a statement from Arizona and Miller, clarifying that he didn’t mean to minimize the gravity of the brawl or sound as though he was condoning it.
Then . . .
Jan. 12 — Late in a game with Oregon State, Arizona’s Kyle Fogg and OSU’s Jared Cunningham got into it after a fast-break basket and when the benches erupted, Arizona’s Kyryl Natyazhko and OSU’s Joe Burton were ejected for coming onto the floor. From the TV replay, it appeared Fogg was the clear aggressor, woofing at Cunningham and confronting him before Cunningham pushed him away. Another version has Arizona’s Nick Johnson embracing Fogg and essentially propelling him toward Cunningham, who took the first physical action. Last week, Miller, talking about Natyazhko, said, “We had one player come about six feet off the bench, growl and turn beet-red. He deserved to be thrown out.”
Jan. 19 — Arizona’s Solomon Hill was tossed from a game at Utah for throwing an elbow at the Utes’ Cedric Martin in what Miller last week called a retaliation.
Jan. 26 — Freshman guard Josiah Turner and Washington State’s Brock Motum were assessed a double-technical foul, and when the two players locked up again shortly after, Turner drew a technical (Motum didn’t) and was automatically ejected.
Feb. 2 — Cal’s Jorge Gutierrez, flying after a loose ball, found himself entangled with Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack on the Wildcats bench. On video, it’s difficult to draw conclusions, which is what officials must have decided; they made no call. Asked about it afterward, Cal coach Mike Montgomery said, “In his (Gutierrez’) opinion, one of the coaches on the other team did something he shouldn’t.” (Gutierrez wasn’t made available to media.) Friday, Arizona released a statement from Pasternack (the ‘Cats must lead the league in statements), which said in part that his actions “were a reflex in response to a player falling on top of me while running at top speed toward our bench . . . in no way was I deliberately attempting to engage him.”
Before the Gutierrez-Pasternack incident, Miller said last week, “I’ve coached 19 total years, and I don’t know if I’ve had maybe one player be ejected prior to this.” He conceded that the three straight Thursdays with an ejection was “really bizarre.”
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, responding to my request Monday about whether he’s concerned, said, “There have been a few incidents in a short period of time that obviously, Coach Miller and myself certainly aren’t glad they happened. At the same time, I’ve got great confidence in him, in leading the program and making sure we’re represented in the right way.”
This could all be a head-scratching coincidence. But each time something new happens, that becomes less of a likelihood.
Two nights later, Oregon and Colorado played one of the season’s best games in Boulder. Oregon, which got to town about midnight Friday because heavy snow in Denver cancelled hundreds of flights, played a passionate game, seemingly unaffected by travel problems or altitude. the Ducks threw caution to the wind for much of the game and used a three-quarter-court zone trap, something that could have sapped them at altitude. Neither the Ducks nor Colorado ever had a double-digit lead, and the game swayed back and forth until the last seconds.
With seven seconds showing, Oregon’s Olu Ashaolu missed a free throw with the game tied. The Buffs beat Oregon downcourt, Nate Tomlinson drove on E.J. Singler and with a mere second showing, Singler was whistled for a foul by an official under the basket. After Oregon coach Dana Altman registered some heated displeasure with the call, Tomlinson hit a free throw to win it for Colorado.
Altman, at the opposite end of the floor, wasn’t in very good position to see the play. That leads me to believe he probably didn’t like the notion of a call being made with one second left that would alter the outcome.
I’ve always believed that a foul with a second left is every bit the same as a foul with 18:46 to go in the first half. Problem was, I’m not sure Singler fouled Tomlinson. There was contact as Tomlinson pushed the ball at Singler, but it’s not obvious to me that Singler got him on the arm or wrist as Tomlinson went up, which was the call made. As lamentable as a lot of the play has been in the Pac-12 this season, you hate to see a very good game end on what looked to be a dubious call.
Iffy as it was, it might have proved some unwelcome justice for the Ducks. They did a poor job of retreating after Ashaolu’s miss, and Colorado actually had a 4-on-2 break on the final possession.
The victory keeps Colorado unbeaten in league play at home (8-3) and sets up a big game — Thursday night — at Arizona, itself still in the league race.