Archive for February, 2009

Arizona @ Washington

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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PAC-10 Power Rankings: Week 8

 

Despite four of the top five teams taking losses this week, there is no movement in the top of the conference. It looks to me like there won’t be much more movement amongst these teams the rest of the way out. Could be a few position switches (ASU/UW for example), but I wouldn’t expect anymore 2-spot jumps or drops the rest of the way out.

 

  1. Arizona State (E) – They’ve won five straight including wins over UCLA, USC, and breaking Arizona’s 7-game win streak. They’ll be tough to stop from here on out.
  2. Washington (E) – Despite the loss to UCLA last week, they’re still in sole possession (by a half game) of the best conference record and have a chance to separate themselves further with ASU coming to town this weekend.
  3. UCLA (E) – Defeating Washington at home was nice, but the Bruins are struggling and a home loss against Washington State shows it. They’re falling fast and I wonder if Ben Howland can turn ‘em back around.
  4. Arizona (E) – A two-point loss to Arizona State on the road is nothing to frown upon. They’ve been playing well over the past four weeks and are still one of the hottest teams in the conference.
  5. CAL (E) – A loss to Oregon State isn’t as bad as we thought, but CAL has suffered that fate twice this year. They’re in the same boat as UCLA with the wheels starting to come off down the stretch.
  6. Oregon State (+2) – A season sweep of CAL and a winning record against the bottom half of the conference earns them this spot. Imagine what they could do with USC type of talent.
  7. USC (-1)  The Trojans have struggled all year long, but it keeps getting worse. They haven’t won back-to-back games in the past four weeks. They’ve fallen apart in the second half of conference play.
  8. Washington State(+1)  That was a nice win for the Cougars over UCLA this week – and on the road no less. Could they finally be gelling as a team and producing at the level we’ve become accustomed to with Bennett Ball the past few years or was this simply a flash in the pan?
  9. Stanford (-2)– Okay, I admit it… I screwed up on these guys last week. They drop not just because of their loss to Oregon, but lets face it – their frontcourt is non-existent and their backcourt is average at best. They haven’t won two games in a week since before conference play began.
  10. Oregon (E)– The Ducks have been in the basement of the PAC-10 Power Rankings almost all season long. Unfortunately the only way out of it is to sweep their final three games and have Stanford get swept. Is Ernie Kent on the way out?

The Rivalry: Part II

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.

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

Life After Lute

 

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.

PAC-10 Power Rankings: Week 7

I’ve shaken things up a lot this week, but things are anything but settled. With the regular season conference title still within reach for the top five teams, and plenty of match-ups remaining amongst them, the top spot is anything but settled. Arizona State holds the spot for now after earning a regular season sweep of the Bruins. Cal dropped three spots despite a win in their sole game of the week – largely because they are being out-performed by the other four schools right now.

 

  1. ASU (+3) – The Sun Devils and Herb Sendek apparently have UCLA’s number this year and have a regular-season sweep of the Bruins. They may not be the better team, but head-to-head the Sun Devils get the nod.
  2. Washington (+1)– With the best record in the conference and a sweep over the Oregon school, the Huskies could very well be in the top spot, but a tough four game stretch ahead (@LA schools, vs. Arizona schools) They’ve got one of the toughest remaining schedules in the conference.
  3. UCLA (-2)– The Bruins took a big drop this week, and fell to their lowest point in the rankings this season after they got swept in the desert. UCLA was expected to run away with the conference this year, but they’re in a huge dog fight for the top spot now with a Thursday match-up against the league leading Huskies. Continue reading ‘PAC-10 Power Rankings: Week 7’

Pre-Game: Arizona vs. USC

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? Continue reading ‘Pre-Game: Arizona vs. USC’

Future of the Program: Part II

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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PAC-10 Power Rankings

1. Cal 2. Washington 3. UCLA 4. Arizona 5. Oregon 6. Oregon State 7. Arizona State 8. Washington State 9. Stanford 10. USC

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