Reopening Day

January 22, 2007

(at USC 80, UA 73)
(at UCLA 73, UA 69)

It's a four-team race in the Pac-10. And we're not one of them.

You've heard all the one-liners. First three-game conference losing streak in 22 years. First since the Reagan administration. First since Andre Agassi still had hair.

Yeah, it's been a long time. But to add some perspective, here is the last time everyone else had a three-game Pac-10 losing streak:

Oregon: last year
USC: last year
WSU: last year
Cal: 2 years ago
Stanford: 2 years ago
UCLA: 2 years ago
OSU: 2 weeks ago
Washington: yesterday
ASU: yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before thatů.

The story isn't that Arizona lost three league games in a row. The story is that Arizona didn't lose three league games in a row for 21 straight years! So as I get the urge to do some excessive complaining I force myself to take another look at my "Signs You're A Spoiled Fan" manual.

(There are logical follow-up questions however. Is Arizona permanently sliding back to the pack, or is the pack of the Pac merely catching up? Does a second consecutive sub-standard season - and third in four years - move our situation from coincidence to trend? We'll save the philosophical debates for another time.)

Another thing to keep in mind is the Wildcats are still short-handed. Yes, every team has injuries. But that doesn't change the fact that we're missing our starting center as well as our first post player off the bench. That means two of our three best big men are out, and we miss them.

It now appears Kirk Walters was more valuable than we thought. Bret Brielmaier is clearly more valuable than we thought. Heck, Bret has to be your MVP at this point. 11-1 and a top ten ranking with him, 2-4 and a seat next to Washington without him. Make sure the engraver knows how to spell his name.

When Kirk went down we gambled that we could A) play a small lineup full time and, B) rely on those same five players without them getting into foul trouble or wearing down. Overall they've done a good job not fouling people, but then again they haven't exactly shut anyone down defensively, and fatigue has certainly become an issue. We knew it was an unorthodox style of play, but it was the best option at the time, so it was worth a shot. Unfortunately, like a lot of our shots these days, it missed.

(Your flavor of futbol Americano: Are you going to miss having the Territorial Cup game on Thanksgiving weekend? As a guy who has traveled every other year this will be my first opportunity to take in the rivalry game in enemy territory. Color me intrigued.)

So what does Arizona Basketball do now? You have to play the hand you're dealt, even if that hand contains four wing players. There are too many games and too much talent left to Wait Till Next Year. We just have to regroup and start over.

Our final Pac-10 record no longer matters. All that matters is getting into the tournament and being prepared to play our best basketball once we get there.

We can treat the rest of the league schedule as a new preseason. That gives us plenty of time to rebuild the rotation, get all our guys healthy and rested, put the spring back in our step, and get the ball to start falling through the hoop with much greater regularity.

(Speaking of actual preseasons, the UA baseball team is set to throw out the first pitch on the 2007 campaign with home games February 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 11. Take you out the ballgame!)

The worst thing the Basket Cats could do right now is keep trying the exact same thing with the exact same group of players and hope something different happens. Now is the time to finally expand the bench's role. Now is the time to try new things. Maybe you start Daniel Dillon to cut down on Jawann McClellan's minutes. This would hopefully keep Jawann fresh for crunch time and allow him to relocate his touch as a sixth man. Plus, it's not like we're talking a huge drop in offensive production. Jawann scored 11 points during the L.A. trip. Daniel scored nine.

Every option should be considered, just like it's November again. Maybe you experiment with Jordan Hill at center to allow Ivan to create from the power forward spot. We definitely need to let young Jordan make his freshman mistakes. Against USC he set a moving pick on one end and traveled on the other and was banished to the bench for the rest of the game. Versus UCLA he was working hard for offensive rebounds and committed a couple loose ball fouls. Back to the bench he went. Let the kid play ten minutes a game and learn. He might just look not-clueless by the end of the year.

There's talent on the bench, it's just specialized right now and it'll take some creative thinking to maximize it. How do we get six points a game out of Fendi Onobun without giving up eight on the defensive end? Can we put enough scorers around Mohamed Tangara so all he has to do is grab a few rebounds and set a couple hard screens? What needs to be done to get Nic Wise to the point where Darren Collison was last year?

I know it's unsettling that we're now playing for March and we aren't even out of January. But this team is still too good to give up on just yet. It's not like we're getting blown out. #10 Alabama has three losses to unranked teams by 14, 27, and 21 points. #16 LSU lost to Washington by 16 and unranked Arkansas by 20. Our five losses are by a total of 20 points. #9 Oregon beat us by two and #3 UCLA beat us by four.

Speaking of the rankings, we should get some sort of league bodyguard award from the Pac-10. Washington State beat us and moved into the top 25 for the first time in two decades. Oregon beat us and vaulted into the top 10 while making headlines across the country. Now USC beats us and looks poised to crack the polls. We need to stop taking one for the teams.

The good news is we don't have to waste energy with scoreboard watching. We aren't going to win our twelfth Pac-10 championship this year. But it doesn't mean we can't refresh our starters, improve the entire team, and absolutely terrify whoever ends up on our side of the NCAA tournament bracket.

Wednesday is the start of a new season. I think we can be pretty good this year.

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