Schu Strings: Contents under pressure?

After Arizona returned from a harder than anticipated trip through the state of Washington, a local television reporter asked Lute Olson why his team isn't turning in optimum performances. To which Olson basically chastised anyone who would question the effort of an 18-2 basketball team that's ranked No. 1 in the country. Is the UA feeling the pressure atop its lofty perch?

That question in the airport terminal was really very innocuous, but Olson answered it in a defensive manner. Basically, he said there were a lot of spoiled people if they were complaining about a team that has won 90 percent of its games this season, not to mention the high-water standard set over the course of the last 15 years.

But Arizona's record really isn't the issue here. Nor is the UA's place among the nation's top programs. And Olson knows it. The issue is that Arizona simply isn't playing as well as it should. The coaching staff all but admitted this after the overtime win at Washington when the team ran on Friday. According to some within the program, that's unheard of in between Pac-10 road games.

Olson has been defensive before. Frankly, something like this happens once or twice a year, and from time to time the media actually deserves the reaction it receives. This was not one of those occasions. That said, Olson's response is fairly easy to interpret.

If Arizona can be described by one word throughout the season, that word isn't talent. Nor explosive. Nor loaded. Not even best. This season, Arizona equals frustration. Yes, Arizona is 18-2. From a talent standpoint, the UA is the most gifted team in the country. Problem is, top-level performances this season have been the exception, not the rule. As often as not, Arizona wins despite itself, and that has been the seed of frustration for players, coaches and fans.

The theories to the problems outweigh the issues at hand. Arizona lacks chemistry. It isn't having fun. It has too much talent. It's not physical enough. It plays to the level of its competition. It acts bored. It lacks focus. It doesn't have Slim Fast for breakfast. The list is seemingly endless.

So just to muddy the situation a little more, let me toss a little nugget into the stew.

Perhaps one of Arizona's issues is an inability to find the right combination for offense and defense. When the UA is at its best offensively, especially in the critical halfcourt game, the three seniors are on the floor. However, those players don't necessarily excel defensively.

Jason Gardner has made great strides. His ability to anticipate passing lanes has improved exponentially in just the last couple weeks, but he's still a 5-10 point guard, and that will always present problems.

Luke Walton is a capable defender, but certainly not great. He makes up for many of his liabilities with a keen understanding of the game, but his continued nagging injuries make him a half step slower than usual.

Rick Anderson has always struggled with his footwork, and that continues. He is often a defensive liability.

I've said this many times before, and I suspect I'll say it many times in the future. The one thing I will always remember about last year's team is it won as often as it did and never dictated the tempo defensively. The senior trio has many of the same issues a season later.

Problem is, nobody on the bench has ousted these guys because nobody is as consistently effective offensively. Freshman Andre Iguodala has played very well over the course of the last three weeks, but like cohorts Hassan Adams (who appears to have hit the wall) and Chris Rodgers (a flat-out offensive detriment at this stage of his young career), he's better in the transition game. Those buckets are the bread and butter of any good run, but effectiveness in the halfcourt is critical come tournament time.

Anderson seems the most likely candidate for replacement, and many fans have made him their whipping boy. But next to Gardner, Anderson has hit more clutch shots than anybody on the team. And in some monster games. Like it or not, he will be instrumental in Arizona's ultimate success.

Are these fixable issues? I think so. I mean, we are still talking about one the top teams in the country, a squad that figures to be in the mix by the time it's all said and done. This is the group that dominated Kansas for 25 minutes after spotting the home team 20 points. The team that controlled Cal. That pulled away from Oregon down the stretch in Eugene. That toppled Texas in McKale. But to get to where it wants to go, regardless of what the problem is, or problems are, Arizona needs to buckle down and start making key corrections.

In that regard, perhaps the Olson response could prove a positive device. Maybe this is a team that simply feels it needs something to prove. Certainly, it will get that opportunity soon enough.

Moving on…

…I try to avoid the sap. It's not my style, and I'm not very good at it. But I must say I have some pretty darn cool friends. I turned older over the weekend, so a group of friends decided to get together, buy me food, and ridicule me relentlessly. Ridicule is a key ingredient to friendship. I value ridicule a great deal. I mean, if a friend can't ridicule a friend, what's the point? That's not much of a friendship, now is it?

At my rapidly advancing age, my take on birthdays is very simple. Milk as many free meals as you can, then hope when a friend's birthday comes around, they won't call you on it in return. Sadly, that second part hasn't quite worked out.

Sincerely, to Gabe and Laura, and Brad and Stacey, and Ryan and Jose, and Jared and Yuuki, and Joanna and Greg…not to mention the valued camaraderie I share with others outside the city limits, I couldn't be luckier to have the corps of friends I do. And in that way, I am truly blessed.

In the end, work related accomplishments are only good for filling out your obituary. Friends and family are all that really matter.

That and the ridicule, which will hit full stride this Saturday, when Cat Tracks Editor Brad Allis prematurely celebrates No. 30 by virtue of a visit to the Fort Lowell Depot, where he will attempt to convince people in attendance he can actually sing karaoke. Let the mocking begin.

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