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Posts Tagged ‘NCAA Tournament’

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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Looking Ahead to April

Posted by naterb on January 30, 2009

 

Even though the remaining 6 weeks of conference play are uncertain and any guess as to what will happen would be as good as any other, I’m taking a few moments to look ahead to the future and the job ahead for the Arizona Wildcats starting in fall of 2009. Things will become quickly more clear the moment that Lute Olson’s successor has been named. Whoever this coach is will inherit a solid foundation and a great program that has fallen into a bit of disrepair over the past couple of years. For that they will be blessed, but while the name “Arizona” has a bit of clout to it and can help pull in recruits Arizona’s 2009 recruiting class will fall heavily on the coach who is selected. The Successor will also have the foundation laid for a good supporting cast, provided no unexpected departures occur, and the fires of the recruiting trail will already be kindling thanks to Reggie Geary.

With the NCAA Tournament finishing on April 6th and the spring signing period starting at noon two days later, the Wildcats have a small window to make a huge impact in the recruiting field. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Road to Twenty-Five

Posted by naterb on January 23, 2009

With two historical streaks broken in the past three years the Wildcats are on the brink of another, perhaps their most prestigious, as they appear to be NIT bound this year. During the 2005-2006 season, under Lute Olson, the Wildcats saw their 141 consecutive weeks in the AP Poll end on December 20, 2005 after defeating Utah on the road 73-43 three days earlier. The streak was the ninth-longest streak since the AP Poll was created on January 20, 1949.

Two years later, Arizona saw it’s streak of consecutive seasons with 20 wins or more come to an end. The streak spanned over two generations beginning in 1984-1985 and finally ending with the 2007-2008 season under Kevin O’Neill as interim coach.

Now after Lute Olson has officially retired and the Wildcats have a second interim coach in as many years, it appears as though the 24 years of consecutive NCAA Tournaments won’t become 25. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi doesn’t include the Wildcats anywhere near the NCAA Tournament – not even as a team on the bubble. Gary Parrish has only four bids going to the PAC-10, ironically he has one representative from each rivalry excluding the Oregon schools. Jerry Palm predicts how things will shape up in seven short weeks and the ‘Cats aren’t dancing. And Bracketville ’09 believes that Arizona needs to win 12 conference games (season + tourney) in order to find their glass slippers.

But maybe, just maybe, everyone is getting ahead of themselves because of the despairing drop in Arizona basketball that they’ve witnessed over the past year and a half. With an 11-8 record and only 12 regular season games remaining plus at least one in the PAC-10 Tournament the what do the Wildcats does the road look like for Arizona to reach their 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament?
Read the rest of this entry »

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Simple Mistakes Costing 'Cats

Posted by naterb on January 22, 2009

A frustrated Russ Pennell during the Arizona/Arizona State game. Picture from azcentral.com

A frustrated Russ Pennell during the Arizona/Arizona State game. Picture from azcentral.com

The lights just got a lot dimmer for the Arizona Wildcats tonight as they notched their 8th loss in their first 19 games. The 11-8 mark that the ‘Cats will go to bed with tonight is their worst record after 19 games since Lute Olson’s first year at Arizona when they were 5-14. Not only is the low mark disappointing, but the Wildcats must now win 9 of their remaining 12 games to reach the magical 20th win that is considered the cost of an NCAA Tournament Ticket. Despite being feasible, that is no small task by any standards and will likely end up with their dancing shoes having NIT written on the label rather than NCAA for the first time in 24 years.

The Wildcats have lost three straight games, as well as losses to the four teams in the top half of the conference they have faced. That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially considering how hard they’ve played only to have a questionable whistle play a deciding factor in their last two losses – against USC and last night against ASU. From an offensive standpoint, the Arizona State game was simply ugly. Too many turnovers, poor shooting, missed lay-ups, the whole-nine-yards. But for as bad as the Wildcats were offensively, the Sun Devils were right there with them. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Rivalry

Posted by naterb on January 20, 2009

the-rivalryThere hasn’t been this much drama in the Arizona/Arizona State Rivalry since some audacious ASU fans’ horrendous chants towards Steve Kerr back in 1984. Yes, even more drama than last year when Arizona State seemed to turn the tables by sweeping the ‘Cats. More drama than in 1998 when Arizona left Tempe with a 1-point victory. More dramatic than when ASU won three straight between 1994 and 1995 – their longest during the Lute Olson era in Tucson – to which Arizona responded with 11-straight wins over the Sun Devils.
There have been some great match-ups, Ike Diogu vs. Channing Frye and Eddie House vs. Gilbert Arenas to name a couple. But something is different this year. Arizona State fans are ready to declare that the tables have turned in this rivalry and that they are now the premier team in the state. They’re nationally ranked, have a better record, an impressive road win at Pauley Pavilion and many other arguments to support their case.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are in the midst of their rockiest two season with Lute Olson first taking a leave of absence followed by being forced to retire due to medical conditions. The ‘Cats had a fall-out with their 2008 recruiting class and have turned to searching for hidden talent to produce big performances.

These are all circumstances that perhaps won’t play out beyond this year after Harden departs from ASU and the Wildcats start to rebuild beginning in just a few months when they look to hire a premier head coach to replace Olson on a permanent basis. The Sun Devils will lose a majority of their talent (ie James Harden) after this year and will need to put together some solid recruiting classes if they truly want to turn the tables rather than just repeating their 3-rivalry-game win streak. The Wildcats future is more uncertain and will likely contain a few years of bumps and bruises, but with the right hire they should be able to keep history on their side and continue to dominate this rivalry again down the road. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Arizona Wildcats, Game Preview, NCAA Basketball, PAC-10 Basketball | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Must Win Situation

Posted by naterb on January 17, 2009

Disclaimer: You may not like some of the parallels that I claim in the first two paragraphs. It sounds as if I’m really down on the ‘Cats right now. I’m not, and you’ll catch up with my thinking around the end of the second paragraph. So just strap in and grit out the Greg Hansen-esque comments for the time being.

Arizona and Oregon can both be trademarked with the same label this season – inconsistent. With young teams and inexperienced freshmen taking on major roles for a team, that is something that can be expected. You can argue all you want that Arizona has more realized talent than Oregon does, or that Oregon has more potential talent in their young players. You won’t get an argument out of me on either point, but to say that one team is better because of it is quite narrow-sighted. Yes, I did say it. Arizona is in the same boat as the #10 team according to my power rankings right now. That’s because both teams have struggled mightily with consistency because of inexperience.

The Wildcats are in a better position to turn it around this season because of their realized talent. But unless they manage to pull out a nice winning streak down the home stretch they may as well have finished 0-18 in the conference this season. I feel this dramatically about the ‘Cats situation because if you think this season was bumpy just wait until the rebuilding begins. Arizona is currently holding on to their NCAA Tournament hopes with a two-finger grip right now and without that bid this season will be a huge disappointment.

The Wildcats have two future NBA players, one a solid lottery pick the other needs to step up his performance to get back there, and are playing in a weakened conference with an easier SOS than in previous years. If they don’t make the NCAA Tournament I believe this team will have underachieved – freshmen and all.

 

What’s perhaps the most disappointing is the work that Russ Pennell & Co. have put into this team. They aren’t the greatest coaches in the world, and they’ve had their struggles. No one is arguing that. But they have done a fantastic job with this team considering the circumstances they have been handed. In an e-mail I received from Pennell last week he made me respect him as a person and a coach even more – even if the results aren’t what we as fans would want.

“I have enjoyed the tough challenge and hope to continue to lead in a positive way until my time here is finished. My main goal for all these players is to improve their overall skills and understanding of basketball. We may only have them for a little while, but we work with them like they are ours for years to come. I believe that is why they improve, because they know we care about them on and off the court. As a coach, you are a teacher and you want to influence those around you daily. Hopefully, we are living up to those standards.” – Russ Pennell

For me, that was more important in my analysis of an interim coach than his abilities with x’s and o’s. It shows class and a determination to do the job that is set out before him regardless of the circumstances. Pennell is taking this job personally, and seriously, and success is measured beyond wins and losses.

Unfortunately, this type of character doesn’t earn you an NCAA Tournament bid. X’s and O’s do that for you. So, the ‘Cats have found themselves with their backs to the wall and needing to scratch together a solid rest of the season. The must-win games started a few weeks ago, but with three losses in their past five games, and no true road wins – the ‘Cats absolutely must win tonight against USC.

With a loss, Arizona would be 11-7 overall with only 13 remaining games. That means Arizona would need to finish 9-4 the rest of the way out to reach the 20 that is considered to get you a dancing ticket. But even if Arizona is capable of finishing 20-11, they’ll need some additional signature wins to separate themselves from other teams vying for the same spot in the tournament. Those wins would need to be over USC, Washington twice, Arizona State at least once, and a win over CAL or UCLA at home.

The other problem that Arizona would face is a road loss today would put them 0-6 on the road with only five remaining road games. Of those road games there is only one chance for a noteworthy road win, which would be Arizona State in Tempe on Wednesday. At some point Arizona needs to prove they can win on the road against good competition.

So make no mistake about it, if Arizona doesn’t win against USC and put together a nice streak the rest of the way, it won’t make any difference if Jordan Hill is a lottery pick. We’ll be in the same spot as Oregon – without a dance ticket come march. A loss puts the Wildcats 3.5 games out of first place in the conference, and either 1.5 (with an ASU loss) or 2.5 (with an ASU win) games out of fourth place. Remember, most ‘experts’ and self-proclaimed ‘experts’ believe that only four PAC-10 teams make the tournament. So if Arizona is going to make it, they need to not only win, but they need to set themselves apart from ASU, USC, and Washington. That starts with winning tonight at the Galen Center.

Buzzer Beater Thought:

“That’s one of the things I want this team to understand: We’re not playing our best basketball now but that doesn’t mean we can’t at some point.” – Russ Pennell

And that point better be sooner, rather than later.

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Take it Personal: Arizona @ USC

Posted by naterb on January 17, 2009

The threat level of Arizona’s NCAA Tournament streak coming to an end has been heightened to critical after a blow-out loss to UCLA on Thursday. It’s not the single game that has put it there, it is a large accumulation of things. Ineffective defense, poor shooting and decision making, mostly non-existent bench players, points given up in transition, and a big donut in the road wins column. Arizona will get a chance to put a vertical number in the left column when limp into the Galen Center later today.

I’m going to keep this preview short, as in my mind there is really only one pressing issue for Arizona that will make or break any remaining hope for an NCAA Tournament bid. I’m sure you can figure what that is, but we’ll get there in a minute.

USC has shown significant strides over the more recent portion of the season. They hung tough against UCLA, and beat ASU – which should be no surprise to anyone that really pays attention to PAC-10 basketball. Sure they lost to OSU, but teams have bad games, mental lapses, or get caught looking ahead – don’t expect that to happen tonight at the Galen Center. You can expect Tim Floyd to have a defensive scheme to throw at Budinger, Hill, and Wise. Most likely a triangle and two with Hill and Budinger receiving heightened attention throughout the game.

Tim Floyd is known for catering his defensive schemes to individual schools based upon their strengths and weaknesses. Because of it the Trojans are ranked the ninth best defense according to pomeroy.com. They have built that ranking by being the 5th best team in the nation in blocked shots with 5.2 per game, and hold teams to 39% shooting from the field. DeMar DeRozan is being a very tough defender for the Trojans, but his inexperience may cause him problems against Budinger.

Offensively the Trojans are led by Dwight Lewis, Taj Gibson, and Daniel Hackett. Hackett is a tough-as-nails player who gets in opponents faces, dives for loose balls, and leaves it all on the court. But despite shooting over 51% as a team the Trojans have shown signs of inconsistency due to selfish play. The Trojans average 15.6 turnovers per game, only Oregon with 15.7 turns the ball over more in the conference, and have a 0.87 a/to! Their lack of cohesiveness as a team has led to some late game problems when the game is on the line. The Trojans’ turnover problems bring me to the pressing issue I alluded to earlier and my keys to the game.

Keys to the Game:

  1. Defense, Defense, Defense (Part 1)- USC, as I mentioned is the 5th best defense in the nation. Arizona… well… 111 before the thumping by UCLA on Tuesday. Arizona’s “Claw” defense is so ineffective the Wildcats may as well be sitting in lawn chairs while on the defensive end. Arizona needs to crank up the pressure and make some changes. I don’t care if it is going to a man defense, a 3-2 zone, or a 1-3-1. Just find something that works and do it!
    Projected Need: Force USC to shoot less than 40% on the night, and less than 35% from beyond the arc.
  2. Defense, Defense, Defense (Part 2) – Not only do they need to find a defense that works, they need to find one that can give them more opportunities to get out and run. The ‘Cats have been drastically outscored in points off turnovers during their three of their five conference games, and in five of their six losses of the season.
    Projected Need: Force USC into 15 turnovers, and limit their transition points to fewer than 8.
  3. Defense, Defense, Defense (Part 3) – It’s not just Arizona’s lack of perimeter defense that has been appalling, it’s how easily teams are able to break the zone defense and get the ball for wide-open jumpers around the free throw line. If that isn’t bad enough, they are allowing opponents to dribble penetrate past them which leads to offensive rebounds as Hill is forced to defend the ball leaving the weak-side rebound up for grabs.
    Projected Needs: Hill 6 defensive rebounds, Limit Gibson to 3 or fewer offense rebounds
  4. Battle on the Blocks: Jordan Hill and Taj Gibson, the conferences best two big men, will be going head to head. Gibson leads the conference in blocked shots (3.1 per game), and is second in rebounding (10.3 per game). Meanwhile, Hill is second in the conference in blocked shots (2.3 per game) and first in rebounding (11.8 per game). The Wildcats have gone away from Hill when he had a significant advantage over each team in conference play this year, they better not do the same tonight.
    Projected Need: Hill 16 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 35 minutes
  5. Take it Personal: The Wildcats have seemed to have a ho-hum attitude ever since conference play began. I know they haven’t given up on Pennell & Co., but they certainly aren’t firing on all cylinders and aren’t playing with emotion. Arizona needs to take it personal if they want to keep their slipping chances for an NCAA Tournament bid within grasp. Defensively they need to be more aggressive. They need to take the shots they are given, and they need to play with a fire in their eyes as if this were the game that could burst their bubble.

 

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