That is not to say that this team has no heart. I truly believe that this team wants to win as much as any. I don't think they are going through the motions. What this team doesn't have is the guy who can will the team to victory. The guy who can put the team on his back and lead them. The guy who might not single handedly win the game, but will go down swinging until the end.
The Cats lack a guy who can take over. Who can make play after play and inspire others to do so.
To paraphrase Rick Pitino when he was with the Celtics, "that guy isn't going to walk through the door anytime soon".
Gardner did not hit a ton of buzzer beaters, but he was a guy who hated to lose and did everything he could to avoid it. You rarely saw him make a key mistake in the final minutes. How many times did he hit a shot in the final minutes to make a two possession game and three possession game? How many times did he inspire his teammates?
Want a perfect example? Go back to the Kansas game in 2003. The Cats trailed by 20 but never gave up. Gardner and Stoudamire led the charge and the Cats won going away. That same year the Cats trailed by 20 in the first half to UCLA and won.
Even when the Cats did not win Gardner was impressive. In 2002 he put a team that included six freshmen and a redshirt and led them to the Sweet 16. Although the Cats fell to Kansas and UConn at McKale, Gardner made shot after shot to keep the Wildcats in those games. The Cats came up short, but Gardner kept it close.
Terry was that same guy in 1999. Like Gardner, Terry took a freshman heavy team and made them a great team, earning a four-seed.
The 97 championship team was full of those guys. Against South Alabama in the first round it was Simon who turned it on late and sparked the team. He pulled the same act in the national championship game where he seemed to will the team to the title.
In fact, that whole tournament run saw the Cats willing their way to wins. Once they beat Kansas you almost got the feeling that they could not lose a close game. Overtime against Providence and Kentucky? No problem. You just felt that Simon, Bibby and Terry would be able to find a way to win.
Sean Elliott was the same guy, maybe the best. In 1988 and 1989 it seemed like whenever the Wildcats needed a clutch basket, Elliott could get it. It was as if he could will himself to a score, no matter what the odds. Even in the Final Four loss to Oklahoma, Elliott was spectacular. Although the rest of the team struggled, the Sooners had no answer for the All-American.
This team does not have that guy. Early in the year it looked like Mustafa Shakur might be able to do it. He had great finished in several games during the 12-game win streak but once Pac-10 play began he made far more mistakes late than he did make plays. In the Oregon game the team essentially took the ball out of his hands and had Marcus Williams running the show.
Both Williams and Chase Budinger have shown flashes of being able to take over games, but neither has been consistent. Neither seem to have the power to will the team to a win.
How many times did the Cats need a take charge guy in the final minutes? At least five of the Wildcats' nine losses were decided late. Shakur was big late against Washington State, but their comeback came up short and they lost in overtime. Against Oregon, Washington State and USC at McKale it was their opponents that stepped up late, as did Virginia in the season opener.
If the Cats are to make any kind of run, odds are they are going to have close games. Right now Arizona does not seem to have a guy who is mentally and physically tough enough to carry the Cats, to lead the Cats, to push the Cats over the edge. In the end that may be their undoing.