Since beating Washington in Seattle the Wildcats have lost two of three. To make matters worse, if you take out the 10-0 run to open the Oregon State game, the Cats have been outscored by five points in the last three games.
Of course, it is tough to totally get down on the Cats. Washington State and Oregon are both ranked and a combined 31-4 so far this season, but that does not necessarily make Wildcat fans feel comfortable since the Los Angeles road trip lies ahead and those teams are 28-6 so far this season.
There are a handful of problems, most of them correctable. Let's take a look.
Hitting the wall?
To me the Wildcats look tired. That is going to happen when five players average well over 30 minutes a game. I said earlier in the season that you don't need great bench production to go a long way in the NCAA Tournament. I stand by that statement. The Cats don't need a lot of scoring off the bench, but they do need them to improve one stat: minutes.
Over the last three games the Wildcat reserves have played a TOTAL of 66 minutes, with 31 coming in the Washington State game that went to overtime. Conversely, their opponents have gone to the bench for 115 minutes in that same three game span.
The Cats just don't seem as crisp or as active as they did a few weeks ago. Passes that were dead on against Washington have been slightly off the target the past 12 days. Shots seem to be a tad short. Guys just aren't as active.
The player who seems most affected is Chase Budinger. That is understandable. He's just a freshman, and even when he was logging a lot of minutes in high school he wasn't having to put in the defensive effort he does at Arizona. Frankly, most high school superstars get to take a little break on defense because most schools can't afford to get their best players in foul trouble.
Of Budinger's three single digit scoring games, two have come in the last three games. He's made just two of his last nine three pointers and just does not seem to have the energy that he did a few weeks ago.
We all knew Jawann McClellan could have some stamina issues thanks to his knees, but the Wildcat shooting guard has missed his last 10 outside shots and has not rebounded well recently.
Even normally consistent Ivan Radenovic has looked off. He had five turnovers against Oregon State and had a miserable night offensively against Oregon.
The only players who don't seem to be struggling are the two players Lute Olson has consistently praised their stamina. Mustafa Shakur is still playing at a high level and Marcus Williams is playing the best basketball of his career the past few weeks.
The problem getting these guys rest is two-fold. First and foremost, the bench has just not played well. Only Daniel Dillon has played with any consistency and he is limited offensively. The rest of the group off the bench is wildly unpredictable. Just one game after scoring seven points in six minutes, Fendi Onobun committed a turnover, a foul and had a defensive error lead to a wide-open three point shot…ALL IN ONE MINUTE OF ACTION. Jordan Hill has also been up and down, sometimes on the same possession.
To make matters worse, the Wildcats are currently suiting up just nine scholarship players. Kirk Walters has missed all but four minutes of the season, first with a concussion and then with mononucleosis. J.P. Prince left the program in December, while Bret Brielmaier will likely miss the next month after undergoing knee surgery. The latest casualty is freshman Nic Wise who is out indefinitely with "personal issues" that are believed to be academic in nature.
Frankly, the Cats are going to have to bite the bullet and play some reserves to rest up the starters. Whether that means Dillon gets more minutes in an effort to rest the perimeter players or the Cats go with a more traditional two post player offense, is up to Olson. What is obvious is that the team needs a little rest so they can ride the starting five in March.
For the first time since the Virginia game we are seeing the Wildcats losing their poise. Although they made the near-miracle comeback in Pullman, we saw some uncharacteristic activity in that game. After the officials inadvertently gave Radenovic a foul in the second half, several players looked at the refs with wide-eyed, disbelief on their faces. The officials eventually corrected the call and sent Radenovic to the line, but not before the Cats expended too much energy protesting the call.
On the final possession of the second half Shakur took too much time bringing the ball up the court and the Cats had to rush to get off a final shot. Although Ivan Radenovic was able to get a shot from the top of the key, he had to rush it and never got his feet completely set.
It got worse in the loss to Oregon. During a Duck free throw Olson called Shakur over to set something up. He proceeded to walk over to Budinger and whisper the plan to the freshman. During the ensuing possession Budinger obviously failed to execute what he was told and Shakur called a timeout and after the whistle slammed the ball to the floor before angrily heading toward the freshman. Radenovic restrained the visibly upset Shakur.
For most of the season Shakur has been a positive leader, but he was obviously not happy with the mental error.
To be fair, these small cracks in the team's composure have been few and far between, but they start to worry you because we did not see them during the win streak. In the Washington State game the Cats countered that small meltdown with the officials and several minutes later they scored eight points in less than 30 second to force overtime.
Against Oregon they used great defense to come back and take the lead and even after Aaron Brook's fantastic shot they found a way to get a shot to tie the game with just two seconds on the clock. They did not get a great look at it, but they advanced the ball and set up a play in just two seconds.
For the most part the Cats are still a very poised ball club, but those tiny cracks in their composure are a concern.
The Cats do have some other issues, but they are fixable or can be covered up. The team is not a great defensive team. They are better than they were at the start of the season, but will never be in the same class as UCLA. The good news is that they seem to step up their defense when they need it. Even against Oregon, the Cats made the Ducks take tough shots to beat them.
Arizona also lacks size. Despite playing one true post player, they have rebounded well and held their own against other team's big men. Neither Spencer Hawes nor Jon Brockman were able to take over the game in Seattle. Both were right around their season averaged in points and rebounds. The Lopez twins had a big day in McKale, but were non-factors in the final 3:00 when the Cats finished Stanford off.
Although they lack frontcourt size, the Cats are bigger than most of their opponents on the wing and get good rebounding from their perimeter players.
The Cats are scuffling, but if they make two plays against Oregon we probably aren't even having this discussion. While the L.A. trip is daunting, even a split will have Cats fans resting a bit easier.
There are problems, but they are fixable. The only question is when do they get straightened out?