It seems like a long time ago when Oregon St. upset Arizona 76-75 back on Sunday, January 2nd., to start the year. The win put the Beavers in first place in the Pac-10 after opening weekend, and the Wildcats, well weren't.
By a quirk of the schedule, the teams that played the first weekend of the conference season didn't play each other again until the last weekend, and a LOT has happened since then. Oregon St. is 10-17 for the season, and 5-11 in the first place, and NO LONGER in first place.
And while the Beavers are settled into 9th. place, and unable to escape a bottom four finish, and a first day game next week in the Pac-10 Tournament, the Wildcats are 23-6, ranked 18th. nationally, and tied for first place with UCLA in the conference, with a 12-4 record. This despite being swept out of LA last weekend, where they lost to both USC and the Big Bad Bruins. However, if they can match UCLA's w-l performance this weekend, Arizona will claim the top seed next week at the Staples Center. Given that the 'Cats are unbeaten in the McKale Center, things are still looking promising.
You can read our answers to their questions over there; here's our questions, and the answers:
1. Arizona had appeared to be rounding into form, and were in control of the Pac-10 race, heading to Los Angeles on an 8 game winning streak. Then the ceiling seems to have fallen in, with the Wildcats losing soundly to both USC & UCLA. Did they go in too tight, or were they too loose, figuring they were already on their way?
There's no doubt about it that the Wildcats were overconfident, and borderline cocky, when they got to LA. They felt disrespected when they were ranked No. 15 after beating Cal in triple overtime, but when they shot up to No. 10 last week, their heads ballooned. Keep in mind this is an extremely young team with only one senior and little experience, and Coach Sean Miller warned the media of that as his team entered the stretch run.
He blatantly said on Tuesday that his team is "not very mature," and it showed against both USC and UCLA. But I don't think it was all Arizona's fault. Both USC and UCLA came in riding high, entering their last homestands of the season. So it was definitely a combination of playing two hot teams at the wrong time, as well as Arizona's lackadaisical play.
2. Derrick Williams didn't shoot well, and generally didn't have games that were particularly productive overall. Was it just a matter of size, or did USC and UCLA do something specific to control him so?
This was arguably the worst stretch of basketball (if you can call it that) that I've seen Williams play since he came to Arizona. His eight points was his third-lowest scoring output of his career, snapping a streak of 36-straight where he reached double figures. He shot 8-for-22 on the weekend, most notably getting dominated by Nikola Vucevic in front of Blake Griffin, 15 family members and over 100 friends.
Miller said Williams wasn't focused throughout the weekend, but also credited USC and UCLA for their defense. I've always been down on Williams in terms of his pro potential for this exact reason. Yes he's playing at less than 100 percent and he's ben unbelievably consistent up until this point, but he struggles against big front lines. He doesn't exactly have a go-to move, and despite his hops, he plays below the rim, which doesn't bode well for him against big teams. Although I'm sure he'll bounce back, Williams was undoubtedly exposed a bit in LA.
3. Arizona still controls their own destiny; all they need to do is sweep this weekend series at home. Are Wildcat fans worried, or reasonably comfortable, given that the McKale Center is a significant home court advantage? More importantly, how confident and comfortable is the team?
Considering Arizona is 16-0 at home, fans are still extremely confident that the Wildcats will get the job done this weekend. McKale Center is jumping like it's 1997 as I'm sure you saw during Arizona's ESPN matchup with Washington. The stands were a sea of white and the Wildcats have continually given the McKale Center fans something to cheer about. Between Williams, Momo Jones and Kevin Parrom, this is an extremely likable group, and at least from what I've seen, Wildcats fans haven't lost hope. There is, however, the 'here we go again' thought running through some people's minds, as a collapse down the stretch would mirror what the football team did this season.
4. Satisfaction with the coach is a hot topic this time of the year. How would you rate Wildcat fans' general degree of satisfaction with Sean Miller? Quite pleased, fairly pleased, or hoping he gets an offer from elsewhere (given last weekend)?
Fans are more than quite pleased with Sean Miller. He's been a tremendous coach since the moment he got to Tucson. Miller does an admirable job keeping this young team focused and determined (despite last weekend) and he demands respect and hard work. Not only has he maximized this team's talent, he's also bringing the buzz back to McKale Center.
Not only that, Miller's turning in one of the better recruiting classes in the nation so far. Between Josiah Turner, Angelo Chol, Sidiki Johnson and Nick Johnson, Arizona is stacked at the point guard position and up front. If Arizona took care of USC and UCLA, and eventually swept the Oregon schools this weekend, I would have considered Miller a darkhorse for Coach of the Year. That obviously didn't happen, but been Miller's been very impressive nonetheless.
5. It's been a long time since Oregon St. last saw Arizona back in early January. What is the biggest story about things that have changed in Tucson since then?
I've mentioned it already, but just the buzz around McKale Center is the biggest difference between then and now. Arizona basketball is finally back where it used to be, and you can feel it in the air. Arizona's also a much more complete basketball team than it was the first time these two teams squared off. Although, this past weekend may change that assessment.
The Wildcats had two assists against USC and five against UCLA, as they lacked the depth and team chemistry that's gotten them to this point. But all in all, there is a newfound buzz in the air that I think the Beavers will have to deal with Thursday night.
6. What about the guard matchup? "Momo" Jones and Kyle Fogg will probably have to either carry the ‘Cats or find a lot of ways to get the ball to Williams. Oregon St.'s Jared Cunningham is and has been one of the top 3-5 players in the country in steals, and Ahmad Starks has emerged since mid-season, long after the ‘Cats were in Corvallis, as a defensive force, disrupting players ranging from Washington's Isaiah Thomas, WSU's Klay Thompson, and Cal's Jorge Gutierrez. This while still operating primarily out of a trapping zone defense. How do you expect Arizona will approach attacking the Oregon St. defense?
Miller talked a lot about Oregon State's 1-3-1 trapping zone and mentioned ball movement is really the only way to get that done. You nailed it on the head with Momo Jones, as he's going to be key this weekend initiating the offense. If he can penetrate the gaps and break down the Beavers' defense, I really like Arizona's chances.
Miller also harped on doing a better job getting Williams the ball in spots where he can be successful. I would expect the Wildcats to work inside out with Williams, as he'll flash to the strong side and hope to knife through the defense or kick it out to open shooters. If Arizona simply swings it around the horn and can't attack the gaps, it's going to be a long night for the Wildcats.
7. Finally, off basketball, but how is the mood about Arizona football going this off-season? Did the ‘Cats slide in the second half of the season leave serious concerns, or are fans comfortable that the right adjustments are being made, heading into the first season with divisional play?
It was rough at first. I actually cover Arizona football for the Arizona Daily Wildcat and everyone thought 2010 was The Year for the Wildcats. They've struggled to get over the hump and make the jump from good to great and after starting off 7-1, it seemed this was the year they did exactly that. But after losing their final five games, including Arizona's laugher against OK State in the Alamo Bowl, a lot of faith was lost in Wildcats football and head coach Mike Stoops.
But Stoops gave Arizona a nice shot in the arm with a few nice assistant coach hires, and a great recruiting class headlined by running back Ka'Deem Carey. It looks like 2011 is finally being dubbed The Year, with Nick Foles in his final season at Arizona. But then again, that's what was said last season.
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