The Arizona cagers only had one cage contest this week but it was against the cagey cagers of Memphis.
(I was reading through some old basketball stories and noticed that basketball players used to be referred to as "cagers." It turns out in Ye Olden Dayes the sport was actually played with a wire cage surrounding the court, and newspaper headline-writers kept the term alive as a space-saving mechanism. You can now call it a day because you've already learned something.)
The Wildcats met their first ranked opponent of the '06-'07 hoops season and it certainly showed in the first half. Both teams came out sloppily with a lot of turnovers and missed shots, which led to a miniscule 5-4 score with 15:28 left in the first half.
The team from Graceland then got hot behind Andre Allen, who is listed as 5-10 but he makes Jason Gardner look like Greg Oden. He had one of those out-of-nowhere career games that has become all too common against the UA over the years. Allen came into the game shooting 3-17 (23%) on three-pointers and proceeded to hit 3-5 against us.
The Cats were missing a lot of shots around the rim and only had 33 points at halftime. But the good news was we were only down five. Lute did his thing at half time and when the second stanza got under way - bam - a 5-0 run tied the game and Memphis needed a timeout.
Things continued to flow nicely for the Cats as the 33 first-half point total had been matched by the under-eight TV timeout, with Budinger doing his best to turn the Chase Fiesta Bowl Classic into the Fiesta Bowl Chase Classic. Mustafa Shakur then calmly landed the eight-point win with very little turbulence.
One of the most pleasant developments of the early season has been Ivan Radenovic's adjustment to playing as the sole man in the post. He has consistently been able to pull the opposing team's center outside the lane, keep him off balance with jumpers, and then draw fouls with drives and pump fakes. Ivan's back-to-back three-point plays in the second half were big in pulling away from Memphis, and his running lefty hook shot off the glass took care of the style points.
We do have a bench. Jordan Hill was solid with four rebounds and Daniel Dillon played a strong all-around game, including crunch-time minutes after Marcus Williams fouled out. Add Nic Wise for spot point guard duty and Bret Brielmaier for floor burns and the nine-man rotation is now set.
The Memphis game was a very nice test. It was good for our guys to be bumped around and get challenged at the rim, and especially good to overcome it and pull out the victory. With a 9-1 record and a top-ten ranking, it's pretty safe to say we won our preseason schedule. Now it's time to move to Season II.
(Your random football note of the week: Thanks to their much-improved defense giving up over 500 yards passing - including a bowl-record 300 yards to one guy - ASU has now caught up to us in the loss department. This means the two programs are basically in the same place, which will make the Mike Stoops/Dennis Erickson battle all the more interesting. Now we just have to actually beat them on the field.)
As we get ready for the Pac-10 basket-battles, this team's offensive balance has been everything we could have wanted. Ivan has led the team in scoring four times, Chase and Staf twice each, Marcus once, and we had a three-way tie against Samford. Jawann McClellan is the only starter not to have led the team in scoring yet and all he's done so far is set a school record with a 7-for-7 three point shooting night. J-Mac's time will come.
I took a look at the Pac-10 stats last week and was surprised to see that Ivan and Chase are second and third in the league in scoring going into the Memphis game. Both of our guys are under 18 points per game and yet they were less than a point per game behind the leader (Oregon freshman guard Tajuan Porter).
At first glance it looks like a down year for Pac-10 scoring but we have three teams averaging over 80 points a game and six teams over 70. Squads are just spreading the scoring around more (Arizona had four players in the top 20 in scoring, Oregon and USC had three, and so on) instead of relying on one guy. This means that even though we don't have a guy scoring 25 points a game our starters will still be a factor in a wide-open Pac-10 Player of the Year race.
So here come all the familiar Pac foes, with Cal and Stanford leading things off this week. UCLA is the team to beat (being the undefeated unanimous #1 team in the land will do that do you) but our Wildcats have the talent to play with anybody.
We Arizona fans need to resist the urge to go into cruise control until March. We need to wash off the stain of last year's fourth place finish. Lute Olson plays to win championships, as his collection of 11 Pac-10 titles loudly states.
When you talk about John Wooden the number that first comes to mind is always the ten national championships. But did you know that the Wizard only won the Pac-10 16 times? OK, maybe "only" isn't the right word since that's still more than anybody else, but if you're going to be the best team in the country ten times you think you'd be the best team in your league, oh, I don't know, about 37 times.
The point is, if we can win the conference this year it would give Lute a cool dozen, and if he can tack on a couple more before riding off into the Sonoran sunset, suddenly he's only two behind By Far The Greatest Coach In College Basketball History and Wooden suddenly isn't The Greatest Coach In Pac-10 Basketball History by all that far.
Another thing to keep in mind: When you consider that all 11 of Lute's championships have come during the Pac-10 era (1978-'79 to present), that puts Arizona Basketball on par with USC Football, which also happened to have 11 Pac-10 championships going into this season. Feel free to add that to your bragging repertoire as winter turns into spring.
So get fired up. Go ahead and scoreboard-watch early and openly cheer against the Bruins, Huskies and Ducks.
It's time to win another championship.
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