Arizona Basketball: How Long Can Wildcats Last at No. 1?

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2013

Dec 7, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) grabs the ball during the second half against the UNLV Rebels at McKale Center. The Wildcats won 63-58. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It was an achievement 10 years in the making, and one Arizona isn't shying away from.

But now that the Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in college basketball for the first time in more than 10 years, just how long will they remain atop that lofty perch?

The stay might be rather short, with a visit Saturday to Michigan (6-3) looming after Wednesday's home game with New Mexico State.

Arizona's players, coaches and fans are making the most of the occasion. In fact, the celebration began several days before the No. 1 ranking became official.

When word spread that top-ranked Michigan State had lost to North Carolina last Wednesday, it set off a chain reaction on Twitter and other social media platforms. Though varying in nature, the central message was clear:

Arizona was No. 1. Or, at least, the Wildcats were about to be.

Even though the Wildcats still needed to beat UNLV before the next rankings came out—a task that proved harder than expected, with Arizona rallying to a 63-58 home win on Saturday—it was impossible to temper the anticipation among the school's massive fanbase.

The Wildcats indeed moved to No. 1 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls, the first such occurrence since March 2003.

Dec 7, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller calls a play during the second half against the UNLV Rebels at McKale Center. The Wildcats won 63-58. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Fan reaction and an utter lack of modesty from program supporters is one thing, but Arizona coach Sean Miller is embracing the achievement far more than you'd expect, especially this early in the season, as's Anthony Gimino writes:

I think it’s something we feel like we’ve earned. We know that being ranked doesn’t mean we won a championship, or the season is now over, but I’m not going to play the negative card at all with that...To be ranked No. 1 is maybe the greatest compliment that you can have...It’s something we put on this year’s resume. It’s something we feel good about. Now, the responsibility that comes with it is very obvious. 

Getting to the top spot is as much about performance as it is timing. Arizona came into the season with a top-five ranking and has benefited from the teams above it (including Duke, whom it beat Nov. 29 to win the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden) getting knocked off in early tests against top competition.

Last year, the Wildcats began the season 14-0 but only reached No. 3 in the polls, partly because of where it started in the rankings, and also because Duke and Michigan were also still unbeaten. The top spot in the AP poll change hands seven times during the 2012-13 regular season, with five different teams holding the No. 1 position. Most teams' hold on that perch is tenuous, so don't expect Arizona to stay there for long, let alone into March.

The Wildcats' stay might only last one week, as the trip to Michigan provides a true road test that usually spells doom to visiting teams. The Wolverines fell out of the AP poll after starting the year ranked No. 7 because losses at Duke and Iowa State and to Charlotte at a tournament in Puerto Rico, but they're still considered a top opponent—one itching to pull off a big win.

If Arizona were to get past the Wolverines—which isn't impossible, since the Wildcats have already won this year at San Diego State, a notoriously tough place for nonconference teams to play—then it looks very likely it would make it into 2014 atop the polls.

The Wildcats' remaining games before the start of Pac-12 play are all at home. The first on Dec. 19 against Southern (2-7) and then Dec. 23 against Northern Arizona (2-7).

The first two conference games are at home, too, against Washington and Washington State, both 4-4.

Win all of those games and, similar to last season, the Wildcats would be unbeaten as they play their first league road game Jan. 9 at UCLA. Last year, Arizona fell for the first time when it visited Oregon in its first Pac-12 away contest.