While many fans are bemoaning the team's fate, I think this could be the best thing to happen to this group of Jekyll and Hyde Wildcats. The Cats can relax, every game is a challenge. Frankly, that is when they are at their best.
The Wildcats did not play a gauntlet schedule this season, but did face a few big name schools. With the exception of the first Stanford game, Arizona's best games have been against good teams, or teams that were deemed good at the time. The Cats played very well against Florida, Texas and Marquette. They gave all Stanford could handle at Maples Pavilion. Against UCLA and ASU, the Cats ran teams that are perceived as rivals off the floor.
Washington may be a very good team, but it doesn't have the name recognition. Louisiana-Lafayette, Liberty and Saint Louis may all be in the post-season, but their basketball traditions don't inspire.
The best thing that could happen to this collection of inconsistent performers is to get Seton Hall in the first round. Teams like Southern Illinois and UAB may actually be better ball clubs, but they don't have the Big East resume and the tradition that the Pirates have. Arizona has something to prove against the sixth place team from the Big East, more than it would against the first place team from the Missouri Valley Conference. While Duke is a huge challenge, it is one the Cats should be up for. There should be no letdown against ESPN's poster boy. The Cats have butt heads with the Blue Devils on the recruiting trail and these guys should be chomping at the bit to get a piece of the Dookies.
Lute Olson himself mentioned that he was glad the Wildcats were getting a team from a 'power conference' because he felt they would be up for it. The bigger the name on the front of the jersey, the more this team gets up for a game.
Although this team is inconsistent, it is talented. Hopefully it has a huge chip on the shoulders and comes out with something to prove. You would hope Arizona feels slighted that it is a nine seed while the likes of Maryland, Boston College, Xavier and Vanderbilt have higher seeds. There should be a sense of determination knowing it is the lowest seeded UA team since Sean Elliott was a sophomore. You have to hope they want to serve notice they deserved better, despite what the NCAA selection committee says.
Individually, a number of Wildcats have things to prove. These players can help clear the air after being labeled as headcases and underachievers.
Andre Iguodala had a terrible Pac-10 Tournament. His performance against Washington may be the worst game of his career. He has a chance to not only live up to his Team MVP billing, but impress the NBA scouts as well. There is no doubt he is at least considering going pro. With a solid run in the tournament, the 6-6 swingman could shoot up the draft boards like Richard Jefferson did in 2001. He has all the skills, but all too often he fails to put it all together. Even if the NBA is not in his plans, he could serve notice that he is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate next year.
Like Iguodala, Salim Stoudamire has a lot to prove. He has been up and down all season and has been a bit of a pariah for the team's troubles. Lute Olson has said he is healthy, so Stoudamire's shooting touch should be back. As a guy who can singlehandedly take over a game, Stoudamire can erase a lot of ill-will by leading the Cats to some improbable wins.
Want to get a rise out of Channing Frye? Call him soft. Frye is one of the nation's better big men, but gets lost in the shuffle with so few appearances on ESPN and network television. Frye has played with a broken bone in his face, but still hears the soft tag. By going out and playing well against a Big East team and possibly the much hyped Duke frontline, Frye can show how good he really is.
Olson has to want this too. You can't be as good as Olson and not have at least a touch of ego. You don't think he'd like to beat Coach K? The 2001 loss was a painful one due to the injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Luke Walton, plus some questionable officiating. For one of the few times in his career, Olson is being questioned. This team was overrated in the preseason, but has underachieved. Like the 97 team, Olson would love to silence the critics by taking a young team deep into March.
Most so-called experts are down on the Wildcats. Some have said that even at a nine seed they are overrated. A few talking heads have gone so far as to say the only reason the Cats are in the Big Dance is the name across their chest. Hopefully the Cats are listening. Hopefully they are pissed off. The Cats need to come out with something to prove. This team has the talent, now they need the focus and mental toughness to show the world that they are better than they have shown.
They have to show that they care.
If they don't, this season will be cut short.
Photo by Carl Shifflette III