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Arizona @ Washington

Posted by naterb on February 28, 2009

Just one week ago the Wildcats seemed to have all but locked up a NCAA Tournament bid, and seemed to be in absolute control of their post-season fates with just five games remaining. They were the winners of seven-straight games, including wins over two of the better teams in the conference, Washington and UCLA, and were eyeing another signature win against their natural Rivals, Arizona State.

 

But the Wildcats have lost their past two games and as they find themselves teetering on having their bubble burst yet again, many “fans” find themselves edging towards the bandwagon’s emergency exits. Their strangle hold on a NCAA Tournament ticket has slipped, and now the ‘Cats must win at least two of their three remaining games. Perhaps more importantly, they also have to show they can win on the road and have only one remaining chance to prove that – tonight when they visit the Washington Huskies.

 

A lot of the Cats hopes rely upon Wises ability to make the right decisions in Seattle today.

A lot of the 'Cats hopes rely upon Wise's ability to make the right decisions in Seattle today.

It’s not just that the Huskies have the best record in the conference that makes the Wildcats task so daunting, it’s how the Huskies have done it. In Seattle, behind the play of ever-reliable Jon Brockman and freshman phenom Isaiah Thomas, the Huskies have amassed an amazing 16-1 record and outscored opponents by 13.8 points per game.

 

 

 

For as great as Arizona was during their seven-game stretch, which just happened to coincide with a long home stand and the easiest road trip in the conference this year (Oregon/Oregon State). When the level of opponent picked up again on the road, the ‘Cats found themselves struggling again. Can the ‘Cats put it together for their final road game of the season? Will they be left teetering on the edge thanks to a poor showing on the road all season long?

 

Keys to the Game

 

Take Control: I know Pennell & Co. have said they only look at one game at a time now, and don’t look ahead and don’t pay attention to the long term ramifications. I can respect and appreciate that to a certain extent. But the bottom line is that the Wildcats are in a must win situation. They have to prove they can win on the road, and they need to finish the last 5 games of the season 3-2 or better.

 

Know When: The Huskies are a very quick, talented team with a deeper bench than our own. Nic Wise and Co. will have to play smart basketball taking advantage of the fast-break opportunities, but not rushing their offense or getting into a running match (Yes, I know they won 106-97 last time, but they also had 41 points at the charity stripe).

 

No Misfires: The Wildcats were spectacular during that 7-game stretch because The Big Three were all playing well. In their last two games (ASU & WSU) we have seen less-than-spectacular halves and stretches from each one of them independently. Arizona has to be firing on all cylinders if the hope to do what 16 other teams have failed to do this season – win in Seattle.

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The Rivalry: Part II

Posted by naterb on February 21, 2009

When Arizona and Arizona State met up one month ago, the game ended in one of the most controversial calls we’ve seen in this rivalry in some time. While the call ultimately sealed the deal for the Sun Devils, to claim that it cost the ‘Cats the game would be pushing it too far. The Wildcats were plagued by simple, yet costly mistakes that set them in the position for a whistle to be capable of determining so much in the game. Frankly, if the Wildcats deserved to win that game they wouldn’t have been in that position.

 

Ironically, that is the last time the Wildcats have found themselves in such a position this season. During the past seven games the Wildcats have outscored their opponents by 8.2 points per game, and have eclipsed an average of 82.6 points during that time. They have also found themselves on the right end of the turnover battle while forcing opponents into 15.4 per game while committing 14.6 themselves.

 

If that’s not enough, it appears as though the Big Three are finally living up to their bidding with all three averaging between 19-21 points per game. But that’s not been all their scoring. They’ve seen significant impact from Kyle Fogg and Zane Johnson on both ends of the court. This team has been clicking on all cylinders the past seven games and look to continue when they travel to Tempe today to face the Sun Devils.

 

ASU has been on a bit of a tear themselves, with an active 4-game winning streak under their belts the Sun Devils have seen continued dominance from Harden and Pendergraph, and have been getting some big games from Derek Glasser and Rihards Kuksiks.

 

The keys to the game are the same as the last time out, but it can all be summarized to say that they simply need to avoid the simple mistakes that cost them just a few short weeks ago. The Sun Devils are fighting for a better seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the ‘Cats are fighting to secure their ticket. Both teams are within reach of the PAC-10 conference lead, and face the top-ranked Washington Huskies next week. Things are getting interesting in the conference, and this game is going to have hefty consequences for both teams.

 

Keys to the Game

Harden Up: James Harden is the driving force for the Sun Devils, if you can contain or limit his play-making ability you disable ASU’s offense. Arizona doesn’t have a defender capable of face guarding him and shutting him down the way that Tim Floyd and USC did, but they should be able to slow him down.

Win the Blocks: The inside battle will be key. Neither team has much (if any) quality depth in the frontcourt. So a lot of the rebounding responsibilities fall on the guards, and the Wildcats have to be ready to box out. They’ll also need to make it a pointed effort to get Jordan Hill active and involved early in the game.

Stick ‘em Up: The Wildcats need to get their hands up on shooters, especially Kuksiks outside the 3-point line. ASU doesn’t have many players that can create their own shot, so rotating in the zone and getting a hand in the Sun Devils’ faces will be crucial. If Arizona wants to pull out the home win, they’ll need to limit the number of open looks they give the Sun Devils.

Protect the Ball: The Sun Devils have the 2nd lowest turnover average in the conference with 12.4 per game (Arizona has 12.5) to go along with 6.6 steals. In each of their losses this season the Wildcats have turned the ball over more than their opponent and been outscored in points-off-turnovers by a significant amount.

 

For more on this rivalry, see my previous post with individual position break-downs.

http://sportscapsule.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/the-rivalry/

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Life After Lute

Posted by naterb on February 16, 2009

 

These Cats are making believers out of doubters and proving there is life after Lute.
These ‘Cats are making believers out of doubters and proving there is life after Lute.

Life after Lute isn’t doomed to what Kevin O’Neill forced Wildcats’ fans to suffer through a year ago. The miraculous 10-point in under one minute come-back win against Houston started a 7 game winning streak for the Wildcats – their longest winning streak since the start of the 2006-2007 season. Even more amazing is the fact that this is the Wildcats longest conference win streak (6 games) since 2004-2005, and it is the first time the Wildcats have beaten UCLA either in Tucson or LA since 2005.

 

The streak in conjunction with earlier wins over Gonzaga, Kansas, and Washington have the Wildcats primed for a chance at another post-season appearance, hopefully with their first trip past the first round since 2006. With all the accomplishments these kids have, and recent negative streaks they have overcome, why should we be surprised if they finally snap a string of first-round losses?

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Wildcats still aren’t a lock, although they ought to be one of the favorites for an at-large bid, provided they can continue the high level of play we’ve seen over the past three weeks. In order to ensure they make the NCAA Tournament the ‘Cats need to extract revenge on the Sun Devils – who were a benefactors of a heinous whistle & technical in the final minute – this weekend in Tempe.

 

With the ‘Cats and fans teeming with confidence, the ASU game has almost seemed like an after-thought over the past few weeks. While that may seem like the case, I don’t believe that’s the case. While fans are looking at what must be done to reach the NCAA Tournament, nobody – fans and team alike – has been looking beyond the current game at hand anymore. It’s not about who’s coming up next, but the task at hand. The result has been a more urgent and aggressive play, and an attitude of never say die.

 

While the ‘Cats all-around performance has seen little improvement from their 5-2 streak that marred most of January, their recent success is immeasurable. The Wildcats have seen better production from Kyle Fogg, Zane Johnson, and even Jamelle Horne, their defenses has been able to come up with the timely stops, and they’ve been hitting clutch shots during this streak. All of which can be attributed to a greater desire to win and the confidence that they can really beat anybody they face.

 

This new found swagger must continue, as they will face three of the top five teams in the PAC-10 during the next three weeks. The task continues to mount, as the road-troubled ‘Cats will find themselves away from McKale for three of the final four remaining (PAC-10 tournament included) weeks leading up to Selection Sunday. As tremendous of a task as all that is, the Wildcats have indicated that they are more than ready to overcome it, even if they aren’t required to do it flawlessly.

 

Reaching the “magic number” (20) seemed like an almost impossible for the ‘Cats just three and a half weeks ago, but now with 18 wins and only 5 remaining games, the Wildcats seem ready to have an NCAA Tournament berth within their grasp. Each win only solidifies their case and earns them a higher seed come tournament time – an accomplishment that was all but written off by the media when Olson announced his retirement prior to the season tip-off.

Things are looking great for the Wildcats right now. A seven-game winning streak, two games out of first place in the PAC-10 and a chance at the conference title within reach, and a likely NCAA Tournament bid. The Wildcats recent success has started to make believers out of doubters, and given the faithful reason to forget their previous woes. Above all, this team is proving that there truly is life after Lute, and with the right moves the future is extremely bright.

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Pre-Game: Arizona vs. USC

Posted by naterb on February 12, 2009

Jamelle Horne and Russ Pennell hope for a redemptive win tonight against USC

Jamelle Horne and Russ Pennell hope for a redemptive win tonight against USC

One of the greatest things about PAC-10 basketball is teams get a chance to try and make amends for the “what-ifs” that often go hand-in-hand with one-point losses. Arizona will get such a chance tonight when in a rematch of a 65-64 January 17th loss when they face off with USC tonight in Tucson. The Wildcats were done in by a poorly officiated play in which Nic Wise was called for an intentional foul and a questionable call (or a poor decision depending on your perspective) on Jamelle Horne with 1.2 seconds remaining in the game.

Other factors, such as shooting 64% from the free throw line, a would be last-possession turnover by Nic Wise, and no significant contributions from any player other the “Big Three” also contributed to the one-point loss. Can the Wildcats continue their five-game winning streak and make amends for a one-point loss marked by poor execution? Read the rest of this entry »

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Future of the Program: Part II

Posted by naterb on February 12, 2009

Recruiting

 

Despite the fact that Arizona is currently on a 5-game winning streak, I’m still taking a break from focusing on the current season to looking ahead to the intriguing possibilities that will play out during the off-season. Last week I talked about the fact that whoever Olson’s successor is, they will need to possess a program first mentality. Otherwise more than just the style of play will be transformed at Arizona.

 

 Under Lute Olson, the program has been a family organization with the focus on the players’ development and the program’s success. Olson avoided recruiting players who were out to serve their own needs, and who were going along with their own agenda before the programs. The result has been a classy program that has thrived at the top of the conference for nearly 25 years thanks to Olson’s savvy recruiting combined with only taking players who are there to play for the program.

 

If a coach fails to integrate the “team first” mentality into his recruiting, I fear that Arizona will no longer be the dominant program it has been, but will transform into an average program similar to ASU or USC. A program with more average years than down years, and more down years than great years. For that reason, I believe the second most important facet of a new coach will be their recruiting.

 

How and who the new coach recruits will be an early indicator about the long-term outlook for the program. When a coach strictly focuses on recruiting the top tier prospects, the program becomes a mere stepping stone for the NBA – as USC has become. The play of these top-tier recruits almost ensures that the team will be competitive within their conference, and perhaps even on a national level, but landing a top tier recruit and building a team around them year-in and year-out is a sure ticket towards inconsistency.

 

That isn’t to say that signing the big-name recruit doesn’t have its place – they certainly have their impact and place within the scheme of the program. Afterall, if a coach strictly recruited mid-level prospects, they would find themselves in a position like Washington State – too heavily reliant upon exploiting opponents’ mistakes. 

 

Successful recruiting is a mix of mid-level talent and top-tier prospects.

Successful recruiting is a mix of mid-level talent and top-tier prospects.

Clearly the better recruiters in the nation have found a solid mix of top-tier and middle-tier players which has led to perpetual success with no “rebuilding” years like the one Oregon is currently suffering through. This mix of mid-level and top tier recruits is an absolute must-have to building a consistent, competitive team – a tradition at Arizona that I hope to see continued. Finding the appropriate mix has more to do with the needs of the team and the personality of the players than it does how many of the top tier vs. middle-tier players which are recruited.

 

 

 

I, for one, firmly believe that the most vital aspect of recruiting is finding the mid-level players with a lot of potential or that have been undervalued. Some of the more notable players at Arizona – Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Gilbert Arenas, and Jordan Hill – have come from this group of prospects. There have also been solid role players – A.J. Bramlett, Bennett Davison to name two of the more prominent ones – that simply got the job done and made an impact for the team.

 

By focusing on these mid-level prospects the coach will have recruited at the worst a solid bench and group of role players, and at the best a few surprise players who develop into future stars. Best-case scenario and worst-case scenario aside one thing is certain, drawing out the best talent in the middle tier of prospects while signing a top tier recruit or two every few years will lead to consistency within the program.

 

In direct regards to the situation at Arizona, the right coach will be capable of staving off a rebuilding effort and accomplish a transition period instead. With a rebuilding effort the entire program will essentially be scrapped and in the basement before it is restored. Considering Arizona’s consecutive NCAA Tournament streak is still active, the ’08-’09 ‘Cats are making a strong second half push, and Arizona has some surprise players, I don’t think this will be the route we take. A transition, will simply change the style and pinache’ of the team. There will be a down year or two as the new coach recruits the players to fit their game plan and builds the new traditions, but it will be more about building upon than rebuilding. 

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Pregame: Arizona @ Oregon

Posted by naterb on February 6, 2009

On Saturday night the ‘Cats hope to keep their Tournament hopes alive while the Ducks are looking to save a little dignity.

On Saturday night the ‘Cats look to keep their Tournament hopes alive while the Ducks are looking to save a little dignity.

Both the Wildcats and the Ducks will enter into Saturday’s game hoping to salvage something of their season. The Wildcats have been getting themselves back into legitimate NCAA Tournament talks again, but a loss to Oregon would almost certainly be a knock-out blow for the ‘Cats. Meanwhile, the Ducks have been horrendous in conference play this season and are looking to salvage at least their dignity during the second-half of conference play. Can the ‘Cats avoid the knock-out blow and stretch Oregon’s losing skid to 11 with their second true road win of the year? Read the rest of this entry »

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Game Preview: UA @ OSU

Posted by naterb on February 4, 2009

Roeland Schaftenaar

Roeland Schaftenaar gets around Jordan Hill for his only basket against the 'Cats in Corvallis last year.

Despite the fact that Arizona won handily (64-47) in their first match-up of the year, this game is no shoe-in. First of all since OSU’s loss in Tucson they have gone 4-2 with their only losses to Washington and Washington State. More impressive is that two of their wins are against CAL and Stanford on the road. Oregon State also seems to be piecing things together under Craig Robinson as they are looking to build upon a four game win streak – they’re longest of the year.

 

 

 

With 17.25 points per game over the course of the Beavers winning streak, Roeland Schaftenaar has established himself as a viable offensive threat. Despite his current tear, I don’t believe that he’ll continue to impress against Arizona. First of all in three of the four games the Beavers faced teams without an serviceable inside presence (CAL, STAN, and Cal State Bakersfield), so Schaftenaar had a significant advantage inside as well as spotting up against big men who were apprehensive about guarding him away from the block. Secondly, the other team in their streak, Oregon, has Josh Crittle and Michael Dunigan who are both serviceable defenders. During the Oregon game Schaftenaar was limited to only 9 points and 2 rebounds – which is only slightly better than his 9 points, 3 rebounds against Jordan Hill and Arizona last time out. Read the rest of this entry »

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Arizona: Week Five Recap

Posted by naterb on January 31, 2009

Kyle Fogg has stepped up big-time the last three game. Could he become the difference breaker between NCAA & NIT?

Kyle Fogg has stepped up big-time the last three games. Could he become the difference breaker between NCAA & NIT?

Arizona’s sweep over the Washington schools this week is definitely something to get excited about. And it’s not just because it was their first PAC-10 series sweep of the season outside of Oregon/Oregon State either. It’s much bigger than that. It’s that they beat two completely different teams in decisive manners and with an array of different weapons.

 

 In Thursday’s game against Washington, they beat the Huskies at their own game. They were aggressive, attacked the rim, used the baseline well, and found themselves the beneficiary of a barrage of free throws. An impressive win when you consider that UCLA and CAL have been the only conference teams to date to do that to the Huskies.

 

In their weekend match-up against the Bennett Ball Cougars, they were able to force their tempo in the second half, and apply dizzying pressure along the perimeter. The first half was rather unnerving as the ‘Cats failed to force the tempo, but a huge second half run en route to 43 second half points showed what the ‘Cats are capable of when they are focused and determined.

 

There have been some phenomenal changes in mindset amongst certain players. Budinger’s approach to his first half mini-slump against WSU was excellent. He didn’t once check out of the game mentally and found was to get his teammates involved before going nuts in the second half and finding his stroke again.

 

Nic Wise proved that he is king of the 72” or less club as he tore apart Isaiah Thomas, Justin Dentmon, and Venoy Overton to the tune of 29 points and 8 assists. A huge outburst by Wise is not a shocker, but to become the level of offensive threat he was is just plain scary.

 

Jordan Hill continues to impress, as Arizona fans have come to expect, with his “typical,” yet amazing performances tallying 16 points with 16 rebounds, and 18 points with 9 rebounds. That is the type of performance Arizona fans have become accustomed to with Jordan Hill. But not typically when the Wildcats have four players scoring double digits. The coexistence of the two show that Arizona is playing extremely well together and have found a rhythm that includes an inside-outside game on every possession, rather than from one possession to another.

The biggest development for the Wildcats, however, has to be the unbelievable play by Kyle Fogg. Fogg is averaging just under 15 points per game over the last three for one major reason – he isn’t hesitating to take open looks. After the close losses to USC and ASU where he was essentially dared to shoot, it seems as though Fogg is taking it personally. He’s taking open looks when he gets them, and is being more aggressive on both ends of the floor. His performance means that the Wildcats will no longer suffer when one of the “Big Three” is having an off night.

 

Despite these great performances, the Wildcats still have little room for error right now. These were games that they needed to win, and by doing so they have only stayed the guillotine for a short while longer. The Wildcats needs to continue to build on their performance and have a great opportunity to do so when they face the Oregon schools next week. They have a tough road ahead, but a sweep of the Washington schools has provided a sign of life as well as a ray of hope. Bear Down Arizona!

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PAC-10 Players of the Week

Posted by naterb on January 27, 2009

Calvin Haynes in an earlier game against USC.
Calvin Haynes in an earlier game against USC.

PAC-10 Player of the Week – Calvin Haynes

Haynes led the onslaught against CAL and Stanford this weekend for the Beavers. Tallying 46 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists he was absolutely spectacular in propelling the Beavers to the unlikely road sweep in the Bay Area.

Runner Up – Roeland Schaftenaar

Go figure, another Beaver, right? That’s exactly what it takes for the Beavers to complete the impressive sweep: two players having the best weeks of their careers in the same week. And considering that sweeping CAL & Stanford on the road is harder than sweeping anybody at home, I had to give both of these kids props before any UW player got recognized.

Arizona Player of the Week – Jordan Hill

Hill was an absolute beast in the second half of the Arizona/Arizona State game, but was called for a bogus foul. Had that foul not been called who knows what would’ve happened. But 16 points, 19 boards against Pendergraph is nice. Perhaps even more impressive was the Houston game against two solid frontcourt players. Nice job this week Hill

Runner Up – Chase Budinger

My goal is to give this spot to someone that normally doesn’t get a tremendous deal of appreciation or isn’t one of the big three. But frankly, Budinger’s effect on both games was so great that to not put him as POW or at least runner-up would’ve been an injustice – after all, the dude did get his head stopped on.

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Die-Hards Rewarded

Posted by naterb on January 25, 2009

Budinger - You wont like me when Im angry.

Budinger - "You won't like me when I'm angry."

Die hard Arizona fans were given the biggest reward of the season and perhaps the past three years as they witnessed the ‘Cats overcome a 9 point deficit with 54 seconds remaining to force overtime en route to a 96-90 overtime win on Saturday. After dropping three-straight the Wildcats showed more heart and determination than they’ve displayed perhaps all season long. Plagued by turnover woes all season long, the Wildcats have suffered 8 losses a direct result from them Saturday against Houston was no difference as the Wildcats had nearly three-times as many (24-9) as the Cougars, but were able to force four Houston turnovers in the final nine minutes which left the door open for the come-back win.

The Wildcats have seen several bad calls go against them the past few games and have been incapable of overcoming them. This time, however, that was not the case. Aubrey Coleman literally bowled over Chase Budinger with 9:51 remaining and then proceeded to maliciously step on his head. The McKale crowd grew restless and angry chanting “Throw him out! Throw him out!” while the officials reviewed the play before granting the crowd’s wish – and deservingly so. That decision was perhaps the turning point of the game for the ‘Cats as Coleman had dissected the ‘Cats perimeter defense and Houston wasn’t the same without him on the floor. The door was left open by late missed free throws and turnovers on the Cougars behalf, and for the first time all season it was the Wildcats taking advantage of late-game mistakes rather than being victimized by them.

Read the rest of this entry »

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