It's gut check time for the Wildcats

Wow. That's all you can say. A week ago the Cats were in great shape, even with a loss to UCLA. Now, just two games later the Cats have their backs to the wall. Two losses to the Oregon schools give the Wildcats little margin for error. As strange as it sounds, you actually have to look at the rest of the schedule to see what the Wildcats need to do to make the NCAA Tournament.

With a win against Oregon the Wildcats would have been tied for first place in the Pac-10. The loss puts them tied for eighth. A dramatic swing to say the least. Although they are playing bad basketball, the Cats are actually still in the Pac-10 race, but need to do a lot of soul searching and turn things around.

We'll learn a lot about this team over the next few weeks. With 13 games left they probably need to go 8-5 or better to still make the NCAA's. Not an impossible feat by any means, but in losing to Oregon and Oregon State they proved there are no sure things left on the schedule.

The good news is that they play seven games at home, the bad news is that they still have to play Washington, at UCLA and Cal twice. Suddenly games against the likes of Stanford, USC and Washington State look a lot scarier. Even the hard luck Sun Devils got into the win column on Saturday and have been playing some good teams tough. For the Cats there are no sure things.

The players and the coaches have a lot of work to do. The coaching staff needs to figure out how to drill home their points. Even though Miles Simon and Josh Pastner are young and inexperienced, they know the game. Fans who don't think they know what they are doing need only to sit down with either guy and talk hoops.

What they need to get better at is disseminating that information. For whatever reason it just isn't sinking in. Josh Pastner had no problem reaching Channing Frye, but those same tactics and strategies don't seem to be working for Kirk Walters, Ivan Radenovic and the rest.

Of course, this isn't just a problem for the young coaches. Lute Olson said in his post game comments that Chris Rodgers was still dribbling too much. Even though he attributed some of that to teammates not moving without the ball, but after three and a half years in the program Rodgers is still making some of the same mistakes he was making as a freshman.

All of the coaches also need to be better at the off of the court aspects as well. Coaching is more than X's and O's. Coaches need to be psychologists, cheerleaders and surrogate parents. The staff needs to motivate these guys. They need to boost up the basketball IQ. They also need to boost up the confidence that is obviously shaken.

The players are not exempt from blame, far from it.

For them it is gut check time. There is no margin for error. They need to play smart, inspired basketball. The team is wildly athletic, but they need to be better BASKETBALL players. Running fast and jumping high are great talents to have, but they are useless without fundamentals. 16 games into the season and players are still reaching on defense, failing to box out and jacking up bad shots.

No Wildcat player is exempt. Mustafa Shakur had one of his best scoring weekends, but failed to get a single assist on Saturday and played poorly defensively. Chris Rodgers hit some big shots off the bench, but was also a non-factor in the second half. Hassan Adams scored 15 points, but had just four rebounds and a key turnover in the final minute.

What we will learn over the next few weeks is just how resilient this team is. They can either get motivated or roll over and die. Holding serve at home would go a long way towards securing that NCAA birth. If they go 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road the Cats would be a 20-win ball club and assured a spot in the Tournament.

The problem is that the team has not shown great mental toughness. Sure they've done a great job battling back from large deficits, but with the exception of the Washington game, they have not found ways to win late in games. Even against the Huskies the Cats blew a seven-point lead in the final minutes and had to go to a second overtime to secure the win.

The Wildcat program has shown the ability over the years to make rapid improvements late in the year. In fact, two of Olson's best teams, 1997 and 2001, scuffled at points during the season, but were playing great basketball by March. This team does not appear to be anywhere close to those teams' talent, but they could be a much better ball club in a month or two.

Right now Wildcat fans are in panic mode. The Wildcat program is not quite to that point, but they are scrambling. Everyone from Lute Olson to the youngest student manager knows that things have to change.

The recipe is simple, but hard. The Cats know they have to shoot better, take better shots and limit teams on the offensive glass. All of that is easier said than done. It is one thing to identify one's shortcomings, it is another to fix them.

Arizona can go a long way on the road to improvement with a sweep at home next week, but that is much easier said than done. Cal is among the Pac's best teams and Stanford is getting better.

For Arizona the season is far from over, but it is gut check time.


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