New Mexico St.-Arizona Preview

The Associated Press

For the first time in over a decade, Arizona is the No. 1-ranked team in the country.

Before a big test to that spot at the top this weekend, the Wildcats play Wednesday night at home against a New Mexico State team that hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since 2007.

"I think it's something we feel like we've earned," coach Sean Miller said. "We know that being ranked No. 1 doesn't mean that we won the championship or the season's now over, but I'm not going to play the negative card at all. ... To be ranked No. 1 is maybe the greatest compliment you can have."

While the program's first No. 1 ranking since March 2003 wouldn't seem to be in jeopardy at home against the Aggies, losers of three straight, Arizona could get a tough challenge Saturday. Miller's team will visit a previously ranked Michigan team which has won 37 of 39 at home, including 20 straight against non-conference foes.

The Wildcats (9-0) have gained their recent national respect with dominant defense and rebounding. Their 14.1 rebounding margin is among the best in the country while they've held opponents to 59.1 points per game and 36.8 percent shooting.

Arizona overcame its own shooting woes in Saturday's 63-58 win over UNLV. The Wildcats went 3 of 16 from 3-point range and shot 41.8 percent overall but held the Runnin' Rebels to 7 of 25 in the second half to do away with a three-point halftime deficit.

Point guard T.J. McConnell led Arizona with season highs of 13 points and seven rebounds to go with six assists. He hasn't turned the ball over more than three times in 13 straight games dating back to February.

"He's in many ways the heart and soul of what we do," Miller said, "and I think you saw that in many ways in the second half."

Leading scorer Nick Johnson, averaging 16.6 points, was held to 12 and had his worst shooting night of the season (4 of 15). However, he's reached double figures in every game.

The Wildcats outrebounded UNLV 41-29, including 18-5 on the offensive boards. They've outrebounded every opponent by at least eight, thanks largely to their front-court size with Kaleb Tarczewski (7-foot), Aaron Gordon (6-9) and Brandon Ashley (6-8).

That length has helped account for a plus-15.0 scoring margin in the paint. Figure in opponents' 27.8 percent 3-point shooting, and it's tough to find places to attack the Wildcats even when they aren't at their best.

"Our identity showed up in full circle on Saturday," Miller said. "I've had a few people say, 'God, what an ugly game. It was a hard game to watch.' In one sense it might have been because we missed some shots and had a hard time scoring. But for me, it was beautiful in another sense because the reason we won is we really stayed true to the best parts of this year's team."

New Mexico State (7-4) could struggle to overcome those strengths. The Aggies have been outrebounded by 23 during their three-game skid.

They're coming off Saturday's 80-68 defeat at then-No. 19 Gonzaga. They focused on the Bulldogs' outside shooting, holding them to a season-low four 3-pointers, but were outrebounded 45-30 despite the size of starting centers Sim Bhullar (7-5) and Tshilidzi Nephawe (6-10).

"I'm proud of the way my guys played," coach Marvin Menzies said. "We had a game plan that gave us a chance to win the game."

Daniel Mullings scored 17 points and leads the Aggies with 17.6 per game.

The Aggies have lost their last 13 games against ranked opponents and last beat a top-10 opponent in 1980.

The teams have met four times since 1999 with the Wildcats winning each contest.

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