Since I am stuck at work this Christmas Eve, and have absolutely no desire to do anything even remotely associated with my job; I thought that I would take a few minutes to discuss the recent game against OU, our up-coming rematch, and the general state of things heading into a very different Christmas Holiday.
First of all, the game against the Ducks from the University of Oregon. Despite Arizona's recent problems shooting the ball, and their apparent defensive melt-down during the second half on Saturday, I have to believe that this game was merely an aberration. Arizona is no where near as bad as a 30-point loss, regardless of who their opponent is. And, Oregon is no where near as good as a 30-point win over a program the likes of Arizona's.
Now, before I end up getting trashed by the Oregon fans that are lurking on this board, let me qualify what I just said with this; no team can sustain the shooting pace that Oregon showed on Saturday for more than a few games at a time. When a team gets into a zone shooting the ball, like Oregon was this weekend, they are next to impossible to beat. Especially on their own home floor. The Oregon team that lost to a mediocre Minnesota team on the road was a completely different team than the one that showed up this past weekend.
There is little doubt that playing this game at the Pit, in Eugene, was a huge boost to this team. Arizona historically plays poorly there, and a couple of things placed them in position to lose this game. First, if you watch the tape of the game, you will see that the Arizona starters seemed to hit a wall when they found themselves up by 11 points early in the game. (Remember that they were without the services of Wil Bynum, and Isaiah Fox for the OSU game on Thursday, which forced Lute to play a very short bench.) At that point in the game, the Arizona players were running circles around their Oregon counterparts. However, the lack of rest for the starters on Thursday ended up taking it's toll, from that point forward. Yes, these are wonderfully trained young men, however they are only human, and they do get tired. You could see it happening, as the Arizona shooters started "short-arming" their shots. On the defensive end, they were not keeping their feet spread, or their hands up. (It's no fluke that opponents prior to the Oregon game were shooting under 30% from three-point range.) Unfortunately for them, this happened on a night, when the Oregon Ducks absolutely shot the lights out. The fatigue was obviously a combination of the missing players Thursday night, and the fact that in their nine games thus far, only ONE of them has been played at home. Their travel schedule has been brutal. New York, Austin, Phoenix, Anaheim, East Lansing, and Eugene. They've dipped their proverbial spears into the oceans at opposite ends of the country, and gone about as far north, and south, as you can go and remain in the good old U.S.A.
Add to that the pressure of breaking in six new freshmen against the toughest pre-season schedule in all of college basketball, and most teams would have not only lost by a larger margin to the red-hot Ducks, but would have a record closer to 3-6, or 4-5 at the best. Lute and his staff have done a phenomenal job, and once the second coming of the "Kiddie-Corp" is rested, we can expect to see them revert back to their early season form. The second thing that hurt Arizona (and UO fans may not understand this) was that they were playing Oregon in the last game prior to Christmas. As perplexing as this sounds, considering the way that Arizona teams have been so well-prepared early in their seasons, they just have a terrible time winning that last game before the Holiday. I believe that over the past eleven years, they have a record of something like 2-9 in that game. Every team has it's own little foibles, and this just happens to be Arizona's.
Now, as for the rematch in Tucson, expect a very different outcome. As good as Oregon played on Saturday (and yes, I do believe that they are an upper-division Pac-10 team) they will have a ton of difficulty duplicating that effort in a raucous McKale Center. Playing on the road in the Pac-10 is extremely difficult. Regardless of what basketball pundits east of the Mississippi might think, the Pac-10 may be the toughest basketball conference, top to bottom, in the country. Playing on the road in this conference is a nightmare. Oregon will learn that when they journey into the desert.
The suspension of Bynum, and Fox will have added a level of maturity to their outlook, and they should be ready to start contributing again. Add to that the fact that the Wildcats will not have had to travel in two whole weeks, and will be completely rested, and Oregon fans should start to worry a little bit. Another thing that will definitely work in Arizona's favor is the fact that they were beat by such a large margin on the road. I have to believe that this will create a false sense of security for the Oregon players, who will believe that they are truly that much better than the players in the Arizona uniforms they will be matching-up against. All I have to say, is that they better not come in to this game with too much over confidence, or they may get shot to Earth in particularly devastating fashion. Again, this is not to say that I believe that Oregon is a weak team, or that they will fold, I just firmly believe that they are not nearly as good as they played on Saturday. I could be wrong, but we will see.
Now, a couple of things about the freshmen.
Channing Frye - I saw this kid play a couple of games in High School, and you could see the raw talent that was there, but if anyone had told me what kind of player he would have been this early in his career, I would have laughed in their face. Keep in mind that he will continue to have his up games and his down games, however he has sent a message to everyone out there that he is ready to be a consistent contributor, now! He has excellent timing and a wonderful shooting tough for someone his age. (10-10 from the free throw line against OSU.) He needs to continue to work on the cerebral portion of the game, and to continue to put on weight, but it is no stretch to say that this kid could easily end up as the best Arizona center in the Lute Olson era.
Salim Stoudamire – He has been a streaky shooter so far this year, but showed signs on Saturday of breaking out of his slump. He may be the best (freshman) defender that I have ever seen in an Arizona uniform. He stays low, and doesn't reach for the ball. He has good anticipation skills, and plays a very smart game. Salim is a player that needs to continue to play through his slumps. Some people didn't like it when he took so many shots against Michigan State when the shots were not falling, but as a former coach I can say that shooters need to shoot themselves out of their slumps. He is such a consistently good shooter, that sooner or later he is going to bust out for a huge scoring game. As long as he stays in the game mentally, I believe that he will continue to be a solid contributor this season.
Wil Bynum – Bynum has been a little perplexing to me thus far. He has an enormous amount of athletic ability, but has to learn to use it in a structured environment. His decision making has not been real good so far. Several times he has thrown the ball away because he is not looking at his teammates eyes before making the pass. He is anticipating where he believes they will go, when instead he should be watching them for clues as to which way they will break. Also, because of the size difference between himself and the two-guards that he is going up against, he is having a hard time using his explosive ability to drive to the basket. Personally, I believe that he is playing out of position. He needs to be molded as a point guard, because then he could be working against players much closer to his size. (Could be a scoring point, along the lines of a Stephon Marbury.)
Isaiah Fox – Isaiah needs to work on his footwork. With a body his size he has little difficulty blocking people out, but he is not ready to receive the ball when it comes to him. This should change over the course of the next few weeks as Lute shows him how to keep his feet planted wide, giving himself leverage against the players he is boxing out, as well as strengthening the base from which he is pushing off to put the ball back up. As someone else on this board pointed out, he also needs to learn to use the backboard when going up for a shot. By utilizing the backboard he would be multiplying the percentage that he has of making the shot. Ricky Anderson needs to work with him on this one.
Dennis Latimore – Not many people have recognized the ability that Dennis has this far into the season because of the limited minutes that he has played thus far. Trust me, this kid is going to be a monster in the future. As opposed to some of the other freshmen, his problem has been that he is too cerebral. He is not using his basketball instincts. He needs to be willing to get into the paint and mix it up against some of the other bruisers. He also needs to take the shot when he has it. He is thinking too much and ends up hesitating too long. The few times that I have seen him take an outside shot in rhythm, it has been a beautiful thing to see. He needs to allow the game to come to him, rather than analyze every moment he is on the court.
This freshman class is very special, and they will start playing that way very shortly. Bank on it.
Finally, this Christmas will be a very different one for all of us this year. For the first time in most of our lives, we live in a world of uncertainty and fear. The memories and scars of September 11th, are still very fresh and raw. For the most part we have managed to go on with our lives, and have begun to take pleasure in the small parts in life, like sports. But thanks to those tragic events we now have a different perspective on what seemed to be so important to us a very short time ago. It is still okay for us to have sports heroes, and to follow our favorite teams with passion and intensity. However, having been witness to true heroism by the police officers, fire fighters, and those passengers on board the flight that went down in Pennsylvania should shed some perspective on what true heroes are.
And as a tribute to all of those people who sacrificed themselves trying to help others this year, I hope that this Christmas season we all take just a little more time to recognize what we have in our lives, and what it's worth. Hug your wife, or your husband a little more this year. Take the time to enjoy the light in your kids' eyes when they are un-wrapping what "Santa" brought for them. Call your mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers to tell them how much they mean to you. There are many people living in the New York, and Washington areas that only wish that they could do what you have the ability to do this season.
In retrospect, a 30-point loss to Oregon, or any sporting loss for that matter doesn't seem to matter so much, does it?
Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays,