January 29, 2007

(at UA 71, ASU 47)
(North Carolina 92, at UA 64)

The good news is we didn't have to wait very long for Saturday's game to arrive. The bad news is we had an extra eight hours to complain about it.

So much for the momentum from the ASU game. We went from a 24-point win to a 28-point loss in three days. Nothing like a 52-point negative swing to make you feel nauseous.

But we did beat ASU and that's never bad. I noticed the Sun Devils took the names off the back of their uniforms. They must have entered their players in the Witnessing Bad Basketball Protection Program.

Arizona State now sits halfway to a perfectly bad season. Whose Pac-10 single season conference loss record is ASU trying to break? Sadly, ours. That's right, Arizona's infamous 1983 team was the first since the league expanded to post a 1-17 Pac-10 record. Washington State is only other school to sink to such a dubious low, doing so in 1990, 2000, and 2002. But no team has ever escaped an 18-game Pac-10 season without a win. So good luck, Sun Devils. History is yours for the taking.

(There. Doesn't that make you feel better? Me neither.)

It's weeks like this when I wish I could pretend I was out of town, or my computer exploded, or I'm suffering from a sudden case of amnesia.

That North Carolina game was a disaster from beginning to end. We had an absolutely horrid start with four turnovers on our first five possessions. On the other end of the floor, if the Tar Hells weren't getting wide open threes they were finding wider open lanes to the basket. You figured then our only chance in this game was to make a lot of shots. We all know how that turned out.

Oh-for-ten on threes in the first half. Another nine consecutive misses in the second half. Attempt number 20 finally went in, then we tacked on three more misses for good measure. One out of 23. Incredible. Those elementary school ball boys shoot a much higher percentage during the pregame.

We were down 18 at the half but you hoped we could get back into the game with a big run. We had the start of one, cutting into the deficit and bringing the score to 50-37. The Cats got a stop on the defensive end and Chase was running the break on the left. He had Mustafa up ahead of him also on the left but he chose instead to throw it to Jordan Hill who was running full steam at about the free throw line. Jordan tried to jump over the defender, committed his fourth foul, UNC went on another 9-0 run and that was that.

Not one Arizona lead the entire game. Not one thing went right either. The singular constant in our game has been knocking down foul shots, but we saw Ivan Radenovic and his Pac-10-leading 90% conversion rate missing the front end of a one-and-one twice.

The baby blue beatdown concluded a January in which we went 0-4 on Saturday and Sunday. Getting our first weekend win of 2007 would be a good goal for February.

(Your dash of diamond: Baseball season starts on Friday! Order your season tickets and get a Jerry Kindall bobblehead!! It's really cool!!!)

So, what does this loss mean? What has changed in the past seven days? We ended the conference losing streak as well as the non-conference home winning streak. We replaced the steady stream of Worse Since with a big Worst Ever. We missed another chance to get a good win. We got really embarrassed on network TV.

That's it. The season did not end. If you've adopted the mindset discussed last week you realize we're still in the second preseason so there's still time to get better. Does having an additional ten games guarantee this team improves? No, but at least there's room for hope.

For example, we talked about trying different lineups. Lute's hand was forced with the suspension and subsequent injury to Marcus Williams, but starting Jordan Hill at center worked. You can't hardly argue with 19 rebounds in 52 minutes. Keep playing the young man, and he'll get better. Yes, he'll make mistakes. Yes, he'll commit a bunch of fouls. But I think he already has more dunks than anybody else and he certainly leads the team in attitude.

The one way the midseason can never truly be a second preseason is the games do count, and quite a bit. We need to tinker and find ways to maximize the available talent, but we still have to win enough games to get into the tournament, and then win enough games on top of that to avoid a seed that puts us in a situation where we have almost no chance to go anywhere (see Year, Last).

At the beginning of the season I said we should be rooting against Bobby Knight and Texas Tech so Lute could stand alone on the top of the list of most NCAA tournament appearances. Well, if you've kept an eye on Lubbock recently you've noticed the Red Raiders have picked up wins over top ten teams Kansas and Texas A&M. Suddenly instead of hoping Knight misses the tournament we have Tech owning a more impressive resume than ours.

All Arizona has is that home win against top-15 Memphis. We are 1-5 against teams that were ranked going into this week. Maybe we'll finally catch a break and that will improve to 2-4 if Stanford replaces USC (or us) in the top 25.

(By the way, Stanford came from 17 down to beat UCLA? I'm going to go ahead and pencil in our March 3 game as an L.)

The Cats also have the painfully high strength of schedule, but does playing a tough schedule do you any good if you don't win any of your tough games? It sure would help a lot to win one of our remaining games against Washington State, Oregon, and UCLA. Our next opportunity just happens to be the very next time the ball goes up.

We don't have to start sweating about our March Madness streak just yet. The goal now is to split every week the rest of the way and beat ASU. That's 19-10/10-8 with at least one additional win against a currently ranked team (USC or UCLA). Worse than that and we're in bad shape. Better than that and the team gives itself a chance at redemption in March.

But getting a split means you have to win a game each week. There is no more room for back-to-back stink bombs. The margin for error with this team is thin. Razor thin. Nicole Richie thin.

We knew coming into this year we couldn't get anybody (else) injured. We couldn't get guys in foul trouble. We had to stay hot from the outside. Now our leading scorer is hobbled. Bret Brielmaier is back but he could only give us seven minutes against UNC. So we have a worn out team with seven healthy players including three true freshmen. And we can't hit the broad side of a barn with a bucket of water.

It's like 2006 all over again. When did McClellan and Budinger get replaced with Chris Rodgers and Hassan Adams? Is Isaiah Fox dressed up as Ivan Radenovic in order to play an eighth season?

But the beat goes on and the games keep coming. There are no bye weeks in basketball. You have to take whatever positives you have and build on them. We started the week alone in seventh place in the Pac-10. Now we're alone in sixth place. That's progress, right?

I said last week we don't have to watch the scoreboard any more, but that's not entirely true. It would be a lot better if we finished third or fourth instead of fifth or sixth, so instead of rooting against UCLA and Oregon we root against WSU, USC, and Stanford.

And we keep cheering on our guys and rooting for victory. One thing's for sure, we're back to being an underdog again.

We just have to get our bite back.

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