The Road to Twenty-Five

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?

The road to 25 starts in Tucson

The road to 25 starts in Tucson

As always, the road starts in Tucson where Arizona needs to protect home court against visitors like the USC Trojans, Cal Golden Bears and other PAC-10 opponents in addition to the Houston Cougars this weekend. The Wildcats have been solid at home so far this season, posting an 8-2 mark within the confines of the McKale Center. Strangely enough both losses came in the final seconds where a foul was called putting their opponent at the free-throw line. Fortunately for the Wildcats 7 of their remaining 12 games will be played in Tucson. Unfortunately three of those games will be against teams that have beat them by 14 points or more already this season.

When the Wildcats leave home they’re road to 25 will take stops in Tempe, Oregon, and Washington. These seven games will be crucial as the Wildcats are winless in true road games. Not only do the Wildcats need to pick up at least five wins in their remaining seven road games, two of those wins are more vital than the others. First of all, the Wildcats need to have a signature win against a quality opponent – this means defeating Arizona State in Tempe. Secondly, they have to beat out other PAC-10 teams that could be considered “on the bubble” – namely Washington – in order to have a sort of “tie breaker” in the minds of the Selection Committee.

In all, I believe that the Wildcats will have to eclipse 20 wins on the season including at least one PAC-10 Tournament win. With the home and road scenarios I’ve spelled out, Arizona would ideally be 21-10 entering the conference tournament with the only losses coming at home against UCLA and CAL. But if there is one thing Arizona fans should have learned by now, is that we can not expect the ideal with this team. The worst-case scenario for Arizona to still qualify for the NCAA Tournament will be 21 wins before they are judged by the Selection Committee. For example a 19-12 record headed into the PAC-10 Tournament with at least two additional wins at the Staples Center would be fine.

Essentially, the Wildcats need to post ten more wins between now and Selection Sunday (March 15) if they hope to go dancing. Ten wins in 12 games plus the PAC-10 Tournament is a tall order. Especially because above all else it will demand playing consistent basketball 40-minutes a game twice a week from here on out of a team that has been marred with inconsistencies. The inconsistent play is what trademarks this team. There are nights that they just come out flat, can’t play defense, can’t find the bottom of the net and as a result get blown out by Stanford, UNLV, or UCLA. Then there are nights they do everything right and pull out a 4-point win over Gonzaga or a 17-point win over Kansas. And you’d better not forget those nights that they do everything right and still shoot themselves in the foot with late-game turnovers and fouls. The off-nights and the late-game mistakes have to stop. Arizona must win or at least be competitive in each of their remaining games.

To play more consistently and be competitive in their remaining games means playing better defense, reducing turnovers, taking quality shots, and most importantly consistent production from Jamelle Horne, Kyle Fogg, and Zane Johnson. Now because I’m not talking about what’s wrong with the Wildcats, but what needs to be done I’m not going to offer solutions to the problems – that’s Pennell & Co’s job. But before Arizona continues down their road to 25 they’ll need to stop for a tune-up before they break down.

The biggest problem the Wildcats have is the drive-train of any good team – defense. Essentially the timing belt needs to be tightened up. They’re leaving gaps around the free-throw line, at the top of the key, and have been relatively easy to get past on the perimeter.

Next on the checklist has to be gaping the spark plugs – namely Johnson, Horne, and Fogg. Each of these players provide a huge spark for Arizona when they’re on. Whether it is Johnson’s three-point shooting, Horne’s offensive rebounds, or Fogg’s defensive efforts and scrap points – they are providing a spark for this team. Unfortunately, there have been misfires as can be expected with inexperienced players. But if the Wildcats want to reach their destination the ‘Big Three’ will need consistent help getting them there.

Finally, the Wildcats have had a major problem with backfiring. Horne’s two last-second fouls, Wise’s poor decision making leading to lost possessions late in the game, and many other team-wide problems that have surfaced each time the Wildcats are in a close game late in the second half. Essentially this all boils down to playing smart basketball and not committing simple mistakes throughout the game.

In all, the Wildcats need to play better defense, make better decisions, eliminate simple mistakes, get more production for their 4-6 players, and win 10 more games by playing more consistent basketball. Is it conceivable? Certainly, but it won’t be easy and it will take a seemingly over-night transformation to extend Arizona’s consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to 25.


2 Responses to “The Road to Twenty-Five”

  1. 1 Davd C January 23, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    So I am assuming the two losses would possible be to UCLA at home and ASU on the road?

  2. 2 naterb January 23, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    I actually think that the Wildcats need to beat ASU in Tempe to pick up a signature win on the road.

    The two losses that I was thinking were against UCLA and against CAL. Any additional losses must be compensated for by wins in the PAC-10 Tournament. Bottom line is that they have to reach 21 wins (unless of course they put it all together for the PAC-10 Tournament Championship).

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January 2009
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