Arizona Basketball: 5 Biggest Questions Wildcats Face in Pac-12 Stretch Run
The Arizona Wildcats (20-3, 8-3 Pac-12) suffered another home loss on Sunday, this time to the Cal Bears. The Bears (14-9, 6-5 Pac-12) came into the game winners of two of their last three games, including knocking off the No. 10 Oregon Ducks, 58-54.
The Wildcats reached the 20-win plateau on Wednesday while celebrating the 40th anniversary of playing in the McKale Center. Once again, they struggled out of the gates and allowed Stanford to score 10 straight points. They trailed up until there was only 8:27 left in the game. The teams volleyed back and forth, and almost on cue, the 'Cats finally pulled away in the final minutes.
How many times will this style of play work?
We found out the answer on Sunday night. Arizona once again came out flat, missing three of their first four attempts and committing a turnover to fall quickly to a 6-2 deficit. They led by as much as nine points in the first half, but only led by five at the half. They opened up the second half colder than the first, missing 7-of-8 from the field.
They trailed by seven with 15:07 remaining and knew they needed to switch into overdrive sooner rather than later. They were able to scratch back within two points with 2:05 remaining, and it seemed like their 2-minute offensive strategy was back in play.
Until it wasn't. They missed their final six shots including two from beyond the arc. The Bears emerged victorious and now carry the title of "Dragon Slayers."
At 20-3 and still sharing the Pac-12 lead with Oregon and UCLA, is there need for concern in Tucson or is this just par for the course with all the other top teams losing as well?
Here are the five burning questions as the Wildcats stare down their final seven games.
Why Is It Nearly Impossible to Start Strong?
It has almost become ridiculous.
In victories and in losses, the Wildcats have shown that they need a couple minutes to get warmed up before their shots start falling. There are not that many teams "nice enough" to allow this.
We have seen it time and again, and it needs to stop, or they stand a chance of repeating the Santa Clara debacle of 1993 in the NCAA tournament.
They went down early to Charleston Southern, making only two of their first 13 field goal attempts and three of their first 10 to Southern Mississippi. Ultimately, they were able to claw back into the game and seal the victory.
It was the same old story against No. 5 Florida, No. 17 San Diego State and the controversial game against Colorado. They led in the Florida game for less than a minute total, and they never led against Colorado in regulation. Their struggles in Hawaii against San Diego St. came to start the second half, for a change.
Four of their last seven games are on the road, and several of the top-ranked teams have lost on the road lately, so the 'Cats need to start strong and follow through.
Will There Be Another Valentine's Day Massacre?
Granted, there is no love lost between these two teams after their last meeting on Jan. 3.
For those of you who have been living under a rock or have killed too many brain cells since then, the Buffaloes' Sabatino Chen banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to seal the victory— until it was reviewed and ceremoniously called off. The 'Cats went on to win 92-83 in overtime, but the victory felt hollow for some in attendance.
The Buffs have won five of their past six games, including beating No. 19 Oregon in Eugene and destroying the aforementioned "Dragon Slayers," Cal by double digits.
Coach Tad Boyle and his Buffaloes are going to play with a lot of emotion in this game but not let the emotion take over. Arizona needs to be prepared for a tough game, physically and mentally when they travel to the Coors Event Center on Thursday.
No, Arizona, the Buffaloes do not want to be your Valentine.
Can the Wildcats Exact Revenge at Pauley?
The "Hangover Beatdown" is what I have labeled the Bruins' victory at Arizona on Jan. 24.
The Wildcats had just come off an emotional victory over cross-state rival Arizona State, in enemy territory, and there was much celebrating. Five days later, they were humiliated at home.
The Bruins came on strong and kept the pedal to the metal throughout the entire game. The 'Cats missed 12 of their first 13 shots from the field and trailed by as many as 14 points before losing 84-73.
Arizona heads to Pauley Paviliion to take on Shabazz Muhammad and the UCLA Bruins on March 2, and it is going to be a tough game all around. Both teams have shown flashes of brilliance as well as poor play, so it all comes down to who wants it more.
The Bruins have lost five games at home this year, so it's not like the hallowed ground that it was in the '70s when they won 88 straight games at home.
The Wildcats can win if they start off strong and play smart basketball...oh, and contain Shabazz.
Will They Be Able to Win-Out at Home?
Arizona is 11-2 at home, 6-1 on the road and 3-0 at neutral sites.
The loss to Oregon is explainable; it was allowable. The loss at home to UCLA was a heartbreaker, but it too was allowable. The loss to Cal was not.
The remaining home games all seem to be easy enough, but as was evidenced by Sunday's game, no game can be taken lightly.
The 'Cats welcome the Washington schools on Feb. 20 and 23 and close out the regular season hosting the rival Sun Devils.
The Huskies are reeling. They have lost five of their last six and nearly lost to Arizona State in the final seconds at home. The Dawgs host the Oregon schools before traveling to Tucson, so they will most likely be losers of six of their last eight coming into the game.
Washington State isn't faring as well as UDub with a 2-9 record in Pac-12 play. It will take a force of nature for Ken Bone and the Cougars to come out of Tucson victorious.
Then, there's the final game of the regular season, against the hated rivals from up north. Arizona State only won four games in conference last year; Arizona was the only one with a winning record. One can never know the outcome of a rivalry game, so if the 'Cats were to lose anymore at home this year, this will be the best possibility.
Will the Wildcats Win the Pac-12 Tournament?
No, but hear me out here.
The Arizona Wildcats won both the regular season and conference tournament for three years straight—in the '80s.
They have won the regular season seven times since then, reached the Elite Eight three times and the Final Four once. It has been over a decade since the Wildcats won the conference tournament in 2002, and they advanced only to the Sweet 16 that year.
I'm not saying that it is impossible for them to win both, but a Conference Championship is merely ceremonial if they only have three losses on the season, winning the regular season is more important.
Their best finishes in the NCAA tournament have come when they haven't won the conference championship, so this is a good prediction for the Wildcats, not a bad one.
Bonus: Where Will the Cats Be Seeded and How Will They Fare?
I agree with you Coach.
Hence my comment earlier about the Santa Clara debacle in 1993 when the Wildcats were a No. 2 seed.
As of last Friday, ESPN's foremost bracketologist Joe Lunardi believes in the 'Cats a little more than I, but that was before Arizona's embarrassing loss to Cal.
If all goes as Lunardi projects, the Wildcats' toughest challenges will be facing No. 19 New Mexico and either No. 5 Gonzaga or No. 13 Ohio State (according to the AP poll.) This will be a difficult challenge for the Wildcats, but it is one that I see them completing.
Moving forward into the Final Four could get dicey if Indiana, Duke and Michigan are still around, but it's not like they haven't beaten three No. 1 seeds before.