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Wall Beard

February 16, 2009

(at UA 83, USC 76)
(at UA 84, UCLA 72)

I love the Arizona Wildcats.

It’s only fitting that on Valentine’s weekend our sports relationship regained its spark. All marriages go through tough times but it was nothing that a romantic brunch for 14,000 couldn’t fix.

Don’t feel bad that UCLA couldn’t share in the passion. The Bruins had Love all last year. But Kevin is gone so it’s only fair that the love gets spread around.

The last time we had beaten UCLA was February 12, 2005. Think about how different things were four years ago. We were on our way to yet another Pac-10 title. We were still a month away from The Collapse. Since then it’s been losses and turmoil and a never-ending stream of “the worst since” talk.

Today we’re getting to enjoy a flurry of “best since” stats. First time sweeping the L.A. schools at home since… First six-game Pac-10 winning streak since… Longest overall winning streak since… We don’t know what the future holds, but for the time being the program’s downward slide has stopped.

And that might be the biggest reason to love this team. We’re getting a break from the problems of recent years. No mid-season transfers due to playing time. No one-and-done NBA draft rumors. Just 40 minutes of energy, effort and team basketball. And wins. These Wildcats are reminding us of the way things used to be and the way they might one day be again.

What’s not to love about the job Russ Pennell is doing? If Lute is GQ, Russ is Popular Mechanics. He has no name recognition. He’s not even trying to recruit. He just has his players believing in themselves and each other. And he has more wins against ranked teams than anyone else in the league.

Russ is no longer Rob Evans’ former assistant. He’s not ASU’s radio guy. He’s our coach, and he deserves all the love he gets.

Love is Wise. I’ve felt the UCLA series turned when we stopped owning the point guard match-up. Mustafa Shakur scored zero points in the 2006 home loss. Darren Collison ran around McKale dishing out 15 assists in 2007. Even in the game earlier this year Nic Wise shot 1-of-8 while Collison had a steady 16 points and six assists.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that in the game that finally broken the streak we got a big league performance from our littlest player. When Collison started draining three after three, Nic kept attacking and matched him point for point. And I love him for it.

Nic’s pirouette/drive/draw-the-foul/hang/fade-left/shoot-it-right//fall/sit-on-the-floor/soak-in-the-glory move was the play of the year in the game of the year.

But the beard of the year belongs to Chase Budinger. It has begun to take on Samson-like qualities. Chase, if a wily female starts inquiring about the source of your strength, run the other way.

Hide the razors. Put away the Lectric Shave. I’d even avoid barbershop quartets at this point. If it ain’t broke, don’t cut it.

Fear the beard.

As far as the USC game, there was never a doubt. Kyle Fogg made two field goals, right?

It was a game that had more swings than a playground. How do you turn an 8-for-8 start and eight first-half threes into a mere three-point halftime lead? Well, how do you successfully press full-court with a six-man rotation? This team loves to do things its own way.

In football you close out wins with a good running game. In basketball you do it at the free throw line. After UCLA’s 13-0 run to cut the lead to 12 with six and a half minutes to play the Cats hit nine of 11 free throws to finish up with that same 12-point margin. In the USC game we made our final 11 free throws. Love that.

And what’s the opposite of love? We’ll get plenty of that in our only game this week. Sometimes love needs a second chance and this is a second opportunity to knock ASU out of the hardwood Rose Bowl.

They’re trying to crush our dreams as well. Did you notice we’re only two games out of first place? I’m certainly not going to let anyone get their hopes up about winning this league. It would require winning out, including the next three on the road.

But if we beat ASU on Sunday? Let’s just cross that giddy bridge when we come to it.

On the flip side, there is still a lot of room among the unloved. Before you start printing “25 And Still Alive” t-shirts realize there’s work left to be done. It would be very easy for the selection committee to draw a line after the top four teams in the Pac standings. Washington, ASU, Cal and UCLA are all 19-6/8-4 or better. We’re still only in fifth place. If we want to feel better about our chances we need to catch someone.

The best way to catch a team is to beat them, and the best time to play a team is when you’re red hot. Prime time, national TV, a ton on the line.

You gotta love it.

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