There is no doubt that Shakur's sophomore season has been lackluster. He is not playing bad, but he did not make the leap that many though he would between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Of course Wildcat fans are a bit spoiled. The last two point guards who started as true freshmen had phenomenal seasons. Mike Bibby led the Cats to the Elite Eight, with a squad that was arguably the best in school history and the nation that season. Jason Gardner led the Cats to the national title game in his second season.
Further damaging Shakur's reputation was the hype he was receiving. Lute Olson talked about how much he had improved and many NBA draft sites had Shakur going in the Lottery, some as high as fourth.
Shakur played very well early on, but came back down to earth as the competition improved. He played terribly against Virginia and then he missed the game winner against Wake Forest and things took a negative turn. In the seven games following the loss to the Demon Deacons, Shakur averaged just seven points a game, never scoring more than nine. He either shot poorly or didn't shoot much at all. Against Wyoming he was just 1-1. In three games against Mississippi State, Utah and Marquette he was a combined 9-30. His assist number were decent, but against Richmond he had just one assist and four turnovers.
Things were so bad that there were stretches of close games where he was not on the floor. Against Utah Stoudamire and Rodgers were on the floor in the critical final minutes of the game and Olson opted to use the same duo a lot against Marquette.
Things finally came to a head in the days preceding the Arizona State game. Olson and the coaches called the sophomore in practice and rode him hard. The tactic worked. Shakur was so shaken up by the criticism that he phoned Olson to apologized for his poor play.
According to director of basketball operations Ryan Hansen, the tough love was just what Shakur needed.
"He just wants to be coached," Hansen said on the Ryan Radtke show. "He came to Arizona because he wanted the coaches to get on him and teach him."
What made things tougher is that Shakur stayed in Tucson over the Christmas break, in part to work on his game. Last year he went home to Philadelphia but was late returning to Tucson and was held out of a game and left out of the starting line-up another. This time he did everything right but wound up having two of his worst games of the season.
Another frustrating aspect for Shakur was his poor shooting. He came to Arizona with an awkward looking shot and worked very hard to improve his form. This season his shot looks a lot better, but he's not shooting nearly as well. He shot over 45% from behind the arc in Pac-10 play, but coming into the ASU game he was hitting just 32%.
Just when things looked bleak, Shakur came up big. Shakur had the huge first half against the Sun Devils. He scored 15 first half points, including eight in a row that gave the Wildcats their first lead. The Devils would tie it up, but the Cats would never trail again.
Shakur was especially impressive from the outside. He was 4-of-5 from behind the arc and knocked down the shots that he should make. His teammates found him in good spots and he made the shots.
There is no guarantee that Shakur will continue to play as well as he did against ASU, but even of he plays half as well the Cats will benefit. His continued improvement gives the Wildcats a number of options in the backcourt. They can team him with Stoudamire and/or Rodgers for a variety of different line-ups.
If the Cats are going to make a run come March they need Shakur to play well. Although they have beaten the likes of Mississippi State and Marquette without him playing his best, but they'll need him if they expect to beat some of the elite programs they'll likely have to face deeper and deeper in the Tournament.
E-mail Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org