During the preseason many felt the Cats were a top-5 team. I too, thought they were going to be good, but I had some concerns. Were they good enough in the post? Were they going to be able to share the ball? Were the young guys going to be able to contribute? Even after they lost Kirk Walters and it was apparent that J.P. Prince would be moving on, I still bought into the "college version of the Phoenix Suns".
I overlooked some of the chinks in the armor. I did not worry about the starters logging intense minutes. I did not worry about shaky perimeter defense, a lack of forced turnovers. After all, the team was shooting the lights out and even an average defensive effort would be enough with the offense.
That wasn't the case. The starters got tired, guys got hurt, the schedule got tougher and the shots quit falling at a 50% clip.
The Wildcats got exposed. The aggressive, yet undisciplined perimeter defense that worked against the likes of Samford, NAU and New Mexico State, was suddenly being exposed by the likes of Oregon, Washington State and UCLA.
In hindsight the Cats were not as good as their 12-1 start, but they should not be as mediocre as they have been.
Yes, I said mediocre. I know a lot of fans rant and rave and talk about how terrible the Cats are, but they are not terrible. Maybe bad by "Arizona standards", but certainly not a terrible team in the overall scheme of college basketball. Arizona has nine losses, but all nine are to teams that are top-50 in the RPI. In fact, all nine losses came to teams that are in the top-3 in the Pac-10 and ACC. There are no "bad" losses, at least from an RPI and schedule standpoint.
That being said, the Cats are not where they need to be. An Arizona team should not be counting wins and figuring out what they need to do to secure a tournament birth. An Arizona basketball team with this much talent, albeit with a lot of flaws, should be figuring out what their seed should be.
The good news is that there are still games to be played. Truth be told the overall success or failure of this team will still be decided. This team cannot be fully judged until the season is completely finished.
To me this team should be a Sweet 16 team. Without Walters, without Prince, without a healthy Mohamed Tangara this team should still have the talent to win two games in the NCAA Tournament. The catch there is that if they don't make a small run in the Pac-10 Tournament they will probably be an 8 or 9 seed. That means a second round game against the likes of North Carolina, Florida or Ohio State. Teams that are, frankly, better than Arizona. There is no shame in losing to one of those teams. The shame is not having a good enough season to avoid playing them on the first weekend.
The Cats need to finish strong. The good news is that they can. The Cats should beat Cal and ASU and have a puncher's chance to beat a pesky Stanford team. Even a 2-1 record heading into the Pac-10 Tournament would give them some momentum. If they manage to go 3-0 they could be a factor.
The most glaring thing is that the Cats need to improve defensively. I am not sure they can do that in the eight days between UCLA and ASU. Even if they are rested they won't magically be better defenders. More than likely, the Cats will need to outscore people.
The Cats have talent. That is the good news. Now they have to showcase it. Whatever motivational tricks the staff possesses, now is the time to break them out. Whatever schemes, strategies and knowledge these coaches have, it is time to impart them. Pretty soon there is no tomorrow.
The biggest question is about the make-up of this squad. Do they have the guts, desire and fight to right the ship? Do they have the leadership and moxie to put the past failure behind them and battle? If they go down, will they go down swinging? There is no one who follows Arizona basketball that would not admit that this has been a disappointing season. Whether or not you believed this team could reach the Final Four, you had to feel that this team was better than a nine seed. The good news is that this team can still make a name for themselves. With at least a month left in the season they can still make a run, they can still turn things around.
The only question is "will they?"