For the second February in a row Arizona's football team is garnering more interest and excitement than their basketball team.
The loss to Washington State was Arizona's second straight and fifth in their last six games. As my friend Joe V pointed out today: "All's not lost. The UA women's team beat Wazzu last night 55-51." You know what, Joe's right. You also know what. The next time I have a beer with him I'm going to drug him, have his kidney removed, sell it on the black market, and then use the money I make to pay for the therapy I'm going to need come March if the Wildcats keep playing the way they have been.
I'm constantly finding myself always looking up, lately. Why? Well, since Arizona lost to ASU in the season finale – a game which knocked us out of bowl contention – my Steelers became one of only a handful of Super Bowl champions to not make the playoffs the following season, my Celtics are the worst team in the NBA and losers of 14 straight games, and Arizona basketball is losing games at a rate not seen in these parts since Olson burst onto the scene during Ronald Reagan's first term. Can you blame me for thinking that the sky is falling?
Who's to blame here, the coaches, the players or both? Arizona was 1-for-23 from beyond the arc against North Carolina. Against Wazzu, the Wildcats were 4-for-19 from deep. Arizona outscored the Cougars 32-12 inside the paint on Thursday so why on earth are they taking so many outside shots?
I've had one of the most stressful and busy weeks of my life and I feel like I'm ready to just cut lose. All I can say is I'm thankful I'm not in South Beach right now because I'd probably knock back one too many and end up doing something I regret like busting out a poor man's rendition of the Super Bowl Shuffle on some bar top at two in the morning. Now I'm not saying I won't do that anyway this weekend but at least here at home there won't be any cameras around.
While I'm on the subject – Bears! Bears! Bears!
In mining some Arizona chat boards it appears that I'm not the only one concerned/troubled by some blasé comments made by Wildcats players after recent losses. Saying things like, and I'm paraphrasing, they beat us tonight but I still think we're the better team is the wrong, wrong, wrong attitude to have. Now I know quotes get taken out of context – especially when put into print – and our players are really just trying to say that we are a good team who isn't playing well but we still believe in ourselves. Still, once you start getting swept by teams, losing five of six, six of eight, and so on it's time to take a harder look in the mirror. Arizona needs players and coaches to rise up and be accountable. Until they accept that their performance of late has been flawed I can't see the Wildcats making any real improvement.
I'm worried about the game against Washington on Saturday. Washington's a hot team right now and they play loose. Arizona is playing way too tight and the lethal combination may tilt the scales in favor of the Huskies. My real concerns are Pondexter's aggressiveness in attacking the basket, Hawes being back in the lineup which has freed up Brockmon from the double teams, and Appleby's outside shooting in the shooter-friendly McKale Center. I'm also concerned by the early tip-off time. Arizona never plays well in games before noon. The only thing I can say is thank God the game isn't televised on CBS because 10 AM PST tips on CBS have been like death sentences for the Wildcats for as long as I can remember.
Okay, enough of the doom and gloom. If Arizona wants to get things back on track, here's what I think they need to do:
First, Arizona must let the bench play. Olson and Company must set the rotation, set each players minutes and stick to it the rest of the season. Hill, Dillon and Brielmaier all need to know within a minute or two exactly how many minutes of action they can expect to see every night and at what point to start each half they'll be entering the game (barring foul trouble, injury, or anything else that would require an emergency substitution). If Arizona does this then they'll be no different than 85% of the teams across the country in that they have a steady eight player rotation. We're way past playing players who we think might match up well against the opponents. We're also way past the point of one mistake or missed assignment and you're coming out. What Arizona needs right now is some consistency in who is playing and for how long and setting the rotation (and sticking to it no matter what) is the first step.
Second, Arizona needs to recognize that this isn't the same old wide open Pac 10 of yesteryear. UCLA, USC, Wazzu, Arizona State, Stanford and Cal are all defensive-minded teams now. Arizona needs to show some patience on offense and move the ball in order to break teams down, defensively. The days of simply outscoring an opponent are long gone in the Pac 10 and they won't be back any season soon with the types of head coaches now in place. Arizona has great outside shooters but settling for jump shots is just what any defense wants their opponent to do. When a team shoots 50 percent from the field it's usually because they shot 60 percent from inside 10-feet and 40 percent from farther out. Do the math. If you take more outside shots in a game, that's when the field goal percentage starts dropping into the high 30s and low 40s which is at about the clip the Wildcats have been shooting at for a while now.
Third, I think Lute needs to get more involved in calling plays from the sideline for individual players. Arizona is doing a poor job of recognizing which player on their team has the hot hand, lately. Every now and again, Coach O will call in a play for Budinger or Williams and they'll get a monster dunk or an easy look at a 15-footer. Howland, Floyd, Bennett and Kent have been doing it all season and I think it's time for Lute to do the same. I know this goes against some of Arizona's basic philosophies of letting the players find their way on their own without having to burn too many timeouts and stuff, but our season is now on the line. A couple more losses and Arizona might be hosting a first round postseason tournament game at McKale if you know what I mean.
Fourth, it's obvious to me that Budinger is one of those rare players who plays at a higher level when he's angry. The only problem is he doesn't get angry until the team is trailing. In the first four minutes of the second half against North Carolina he literally bulldozed the Tar Heels on back-to-back possessions in finishing at the basket. Someone do us all a favor and tell Budinger his mom wears Army boots or something prior to tip off from now on. On this note, a colleague made a similar assumption about not just Wind but about Williams and Shakur as well. I agree that they both seem to play better with a chip on their shoulder. Arizona needs to flip the switch on their mindset and start acting like the New England Patriots or better yet this year's Wazzu team and invent ways of how opponents are disrespecting them.
Fifth, it might be time to permanently replace McClellan with Hill in the starting lineup. This is not a benching of McClellan, nor should it be viewed as a demotion. What this does is put Fire on the floor to do the dirty work down low, which will free up Radenovic to operate his mid-range game better. It will also provide Arizona with a shooter off the bench who is capable of being as good as any starter in the country on any given night. It would also allow Arizona to bring in two fresh guards off the bench at the same time if necessary to speed up the game when they have to.
Sixth, ironically Arizona must take an opposite approach to conventional thought in that it's not all about the team name on the front of the jersey. For the Wildcats, it is now about the name on the back of each jersey. What I mean is this year's squad can't rest on the laurels of those who wore the uniform before them and created the winning tradition that is Arizona basketball. They're now in a dogfight in arguably the nation's best conference and no Pac-10 team is going to simply cower at the sight of the Arizona lettering. Individuals need to step up and take over games. Legacies are on the line. Reputations are at stake. Winning records and streaks are being threatened. It's time to put up or shut up. In fact, it's time to shut up and just put up.
Finally, someone get the Ooh Ah Man on the horn and get him down to McKale for tomorrow's game. I mean right now!