The Good, The Bad and The Tourney

Practice is over. All those regular-season opportunities to correct weak spots, and improve upon strengths, have led to this. For the most part, Arizona has delivered a good grade, and as a result should present problems for the opposition in the NCAA tournament. But as is the case with every team, chinks are apparent.

Winning the NCAA tournament is a combination of skill and luck. By virtue of Arizona's two-plus decade run of Big Dance appearances, Wildcat fans understand this simple truth as well as anybody. While certainly not a clear-cut favorite, and while certainly incapable of predicting the fate Lady Luck has in store, between the lines the UA has many of the ingredients necessary for a successful run.

What follows is a breakdown of strengths and weaknesses by area:

Inside play:

Positives: Channing Frye, while labeled by some as soft, is one of the best centers in the college game. The senior possesses a myriad of moves on the inside, and can bury the jumper from close to three-point range with consistency. Frye also runs the floor as well as any big man in Division I.

Ivan Radenovic has given Arizona a second presence on the interior. Over the last third of the season, the Serbian has averaged 10 points and seven assists a game. The UA ranked second in the Pac-10 in rebounding margin.

Negatives: Kirk Walters hasn't emerged as hoped. Walters made big strides in practice, and it was hoped he could contribute with some key minutes in light of Isaiah Fox' perplexing slide. Walters leveled off about eight games into the season, but if he can catch a second wind there remains a chance he could still act as a stopgap if Frye struggles or Radenovic hits a rut. And make no mistake, both are capable of said slippage. Frye was a monster on the Washington swing, converting 24-of-28 field goals, but turned in a terrible performance at ASU. Radenovic is still an unknown, and one wonders how he'll perform in big games, although his two free throws at Washington State is a good omen.

Walters might still have on-court conditioning issues. He appears to struggle more in the second game of the weekend. Furthermore, if he's required to guard on the perimeter, that's a bad matchup for the UA. Fox might have an opportunity to exorcise some season demons should attrition enter the equation.

Perimeter play:

Positives: Salim Stoudamire is among the best one-on-one performers, and unquestionably one of the best pure shooters in the game. He has accepted his role as team leader and more often than not delivered with a slew of scintillating performances. Furthermore, he has no fear in big-time situations, and has drained game-winning shots already this season.

Hassan Adams is the stat-filler, an athletic version of Luke Walton who has recognized that not only can he pass, rebound and defend, but he can beat people off the dribble and get to the rack with shocking regularity. Like Radenovic, he presents unique matchup issues for opponents, and gives the UA a consistent third scorer to help buffer a letdown should Frye and Stoudamire hit a rut.

Arizona is the best three-point shooting team in the Pac-10.

Negatives: Mustafa Shakur and Chris Rodgers have been inconsistent. Shakur stepped up nicely in Arizona's win at ASU. If he takes good shots when they're available and hits the glass (he had eight rebounds in Tempe), thus leading the break, the UA is in good shape. While strong in the open floor, Shakur continues to struggle in Arizona's halfcourt offense, but if he can make good decisions as teams overcompensate to deal with the UA's other offensive weapons, he can be a key ingredient in Arizona's run.

The same can be said of Rodgers, who has fallen hard since a stellar 11-rebound, nine-assist, no-turnover performance three weeks ago. Whereas Shakur is, and always has been, a defensive liability, Rodgers should be the best shutdown defender in this program since Reggie Geary. But he isn't, or hasn't been with any consistency. He has to be a contributor of significance if Arizona is to make a run. If he isn't, Lute Olson will be forced to go with unseasoned options like Jawann McClellan (who can and probably will see time at a variety of positions, and has accepted his role and played it well), Jesus Verdejo (good shooter, uncertain defender) and Daniel Dillon (can hit the glass and play decent defense, but has seen limited floor time of late).


Positives: After a brutal start, the UA offense has generally hit its stride. Arizona averages 79 points a game. Considering the low-point outputs prior to the New Year, that's a pretty staggering tally. The UA shoots 46 percent from the floor, and has trimmed its average turnover output from 15 to 13 during the conference season.

Stoudamire gives the Wildcats the type of offensive threat who can find a variety of ways to score, and as a result, get his teammates through tough patches, but this is a more rounded entry than 1995 and 1999, when Damon Stoudamire and Jason Terry were the main offensive options. Frye is capable of delivering efforts well into the 20s, and the emergence of Adams adds a third legitimate threat. Radenovic is coming along nicely, so even if Stoudamire struggles, there's an opportunity for other options to fill the void.

Negatives: Stoudamire certainly hit the big shot against ASU, but he hasn't really played exceptionally well since the one-point win at Washington State. Thomas Kelati may very well be the blueprint for defending Arizona's senior guard. Guard Stoudamire with a taller athlete and shade to his left, and there's a chance his effectiveness can be limited. Stoudamire has shown great patience this season. He's been grabbed, held, bullied, and basically entered every game as the opposition's focal point.

The greater issue is finding a fifth consistent outlet. Shakur has been shaky offensively, as has Rodgers and McClellan. Given his starting responsibilities, if Shakur can take, and convert, the good shots available to him within the flow of an offense that generally performs pretty well, then Arizona should be in good shape. If he doesn't, and someone of significance has a bad game, it could spell trouble.

On the inside, Frye has had those games where the ball seems to lip around the basket, and physical, athletic players continue to cause problems. If that happens in the tournament, it will be incumbent upon others to pick up the slack.

The good news is that Arizona has players who can do just that.


Positives: The best coaching job Lute Olson turned in this season was a return to fundamentals during the early portion of the campaign. When the UA struggled offensively, Olson reverted to a slow-down halfcourt, pack-it-in defense. While it led to scores like 63-60 against Wake Forest, 48-43 at Marquette, 68-64 against Mississippi State and 67-62 against Utah, the UA still managed to stay afloat.

Once the players took hold of the necessity for solid defense, Olson expanded the repertoire. Athleticism took over from there. Arizona has the ability to get into passing lanes, thus leading to steals that set the stage for devastating outbursts on the offensive end. The UA has routinely delivered high-steal performances. It's a nice combination to have.

Arizona also has the ability to play lockdown defense when it matters. The UA has been a part of 11 games where the outcome was in doubt in the final minute. In nine of those games, it didn't allow a point. In other words, Arizona has shown it can get a stop when it absolutely has to have one.

Negatives: Penetrating guards. Stoudamire is the UA's best perimeter defender. It should be Rodgers, but it isn't, at least with any consistency. As a result, teams with guards who can get to the lane can give Arizona's man-to-man defense problems. That's one of the reasons Arizona implemented the 1-3-1 zone, but the problematic aspect of that defense is rebounding. It's also a zone susceptible to perimeter shooters with height, but it can be difficult to break for teams that haven't seen it.


Positives: Free throw shooting: The Wildcats convert nearly 80 percent of their attempts from the line. If the opposition gets in a hole and is forced to foul, that could be trouble. Stoudamire is the best free throw shooter on the team, but there really isn't a weak link. Radenovic shoots 71 percent, but he hit two game-winners at Washington State. Rodgers is 7-of-13 in Pac-10 play, but it seems unlikely he'll be on the floor in a late-game situation.

Success in close games: As noted above, Arizona's defense has generally delivered when absolutely necessary. Most recently, it won at Washington State by forcing two turnovers in the game's final 90 seconds, and got a big offensive rebound at ASU by Stoudamire that ultimately set up his game-winner. In late halfcourt situations, teams have rarely scored with any regularity.

Veteran leadership: Frye and Stoudamire are seniors, and Adams a junior. Upperclass experience like that can be a significant benefit in the pressure cooker of NCAA tournament play.

Versatility: Arizona can score on the inside, it can score on the outside and it possesses intriguing matchup problems in the likes of Adams and Radenovic.

Negatives: Big leads: When Arizona gets one, it sometimes has a problem maintaining its good fortune. It dominated Wake Forest early, then let up, and suffered a loss in the NIT Finals. In the ASU game last week, the UA gave up two double-figure leads and needed heroics to preserve the win.

On the flip side, Arizona doesn't appear to be the type of team that can rally. It couldn't make enough of a push after digging itself a hole at Stanford, and seemed just one play away from getting over the hump at Washington. Its biggest rally of the season was an eight-point deficit at home against UCLA.

The fifth wheel: Shakur and Rodgers could be significant in determining Arizona's fortunes. While the UA has gotten generally consistent efforts from Frye, Stoudamire, Adams and Radenovic, Shakur and Rodgers have been up and down. They have to step up their games. If that happens, Arizona could be right there.

Depth: A much-balleyhooed aspect of Arizona's game at the beginning of the season, depth is now a point of uncertainty in the tournament. The UA seems set on an eight-man rotation, but even then McLellan and Walters see limited floor time. It's safe to say that at some point during Arizona's tournament run, members of the bench are going to have to hold the fort in light of foul trouble or other unforeseen circumstances.

The final verdict:

Are you kidding? There is no verdict. It's the NCAA tournament, for goodness sake. Top seeds falter, and surprises make magical runs. At the very least, Arizona has many of the ingredients necessary to give itself an opportunity to play well into the field.

Other than that, all we can do is watch.

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