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Sad Times

December 29, 2008

(at UA 84, Kansas 67)

I’m always sad when UA football ends but this year is a little worse than usual because we’re leaving something that ended so well and facing something with a very uncertain ending.

“But wait!” you say. “Arizona Basketball just beat national powers Gonzaga and Kansas. Happy days are here again!”

I’m not going to take anything away from the Gonzaga win. Forget Portland State. I fully expect the Zags to steamroll the WCC again and give Memphis all it can handle in February. That was a really strong victory for Arizona.

Kansas on the other hand…not so much.

I’m not trying to be Mr. Bad News guy but at this point Kansas is Kansas in name only. The young Jayhawks have an RPI in triple digits. They lost to 5-6 UMass and their best win to-date was against a Washington team that lost to Portland. Yes, it turns heads to take down The Defending National Champs but this year it’s not as big a measuring stick as usual.

My point is we really want to avoid the temptation of getting our hopes up. I love how hard this Wildcat team is playing and the make-shift coaching staff is doing a lot of good things. But this squad still has a lot to prove and the biggest challenge may be one of raw science. If you’ve been paying attention the last couple years you know it’s out there.

The Wall.

Remember two years ago, Lute’s last season of actual coaching? This was the “Mustafa and the 4 Threes” team where Lute started four small forwards and rode them to a 12-1 start and a top-10 record. But he completely burned them out (the five starters played 185 out of 200 minutes in game 16 for example) and they lost six out of eight to come crashing back to earth.

Kevin O’Neill also tried the five-man rotation last year and got to 9-2 before injuries to 40% of those five led to a losing league record.

This year we’re even thinner with three must-have guys averaging north of 33 minutes a game. Believe me, I don’t blame Coach Pennell at all. He’s doing what he has to do to be competitive. It’s just that he’s trying to play seven-card stud with only four cards.

One positive is that, unlike the previous regime, Team Russ is at least trying to establish roles for his non-stars. Jamelle Horne should be a rebounding machine and if it takes bringing him off the bench to get him there, so be it. Zane Johnson should be looking to do nothing but shoot open jumpers. Alex Jacobson should be on the floor long enough to get very aggressive challenging shots and crashing the boards. Until you develop a more complete game just focus on what you do best.

A negative: Has there ever been a team worse at inbounding the ball? Turnovers, five-second calls, and against Kansas we had a new one where one guy threw it in to another guy who stepped out of bounds to try and throw it in again.

The biggest positive: The Mountain is growing into an entire mountain range.

(Quick aside: Scroll down to the very bottom of the above link. That section is lot easier to take now that we’re the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl Champions.)

One of the big questions surrounding Chase Budinger’s career has been whether or not he has what it takes to be The Guy. He came off the bench as a freshman, and he took a backseat to Jerryd Bayless last year. This was finally going to be his year as Option A and the question was whether or not he could handle it. Could he finally be Batman?

Well, the good news is we don’t have to find out because Jordan Hill looks like Batman, Superman and even Green Lantern rolled into one. The argument was that maybe Hill was the best returning big man in the Pac-10. Now he might just be the best PLAYER in the league. That means Chase can comfortably be Robin. Now if we can just get Nic Wise to be PleaseStopOver-PenetratingAndTurningItOver Man our little Justice League might just be able to compete with the Pac-10 League.

Even though I’m preaching modest expectations for the fans there’s nothing wrong with the team setting lofty goals. It is certainly true the Cats’ play thus far has not made it impossible to push the NCAA tournament streak to a cool quarter-century, so we may as well do the math.

With our own RPI hovering around 70 the precedent to avoid was set by last year’s ASU team. They went 19-12, 9-10 in Pac-10 games, and were left out due to a weak non-conference schedule. So I’m going to say the ’09 Wildcats need a full 20 wins to get into the Dance. Assuming a win against Weber State, that means we’ll need 11 wins over the final 20 games (including Houston at home and the first round of the Pac tournament). That doesn’t seem too crazy, right? That is, if you’re going to ignore that Wall thing and get your hopes up.

The thing to keep in mind no matter what happens once the Pac-10 two-games-in-three-days grind starts, it’s still important to get behind these players and stay invested in this team. Guys like Zane Johnson, Kyle Fogg and Alex Jacobson are going to be a large part of the new coach’s rebuilding process. We need them to improve all season long and become active parts of Arizona Basketball.

With their help – and one great hire – happy days might come back for good.

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