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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Wildcats back on track following team’s three-game winning streak

    A week ago the Arizona men’s basketball team stared a 1-4 Pacific 10 Conference start and ninth-place standing in the face when it trailed by seven at California with about seven minutes left.

    Instead the Wildcats fought back against the Golden Bears and looked dominant in a weekend sweep of No. 6 Washington State and Washington, putting them in a tie for fourth in the conference and a game out of second.

    “”We’re just playing hard, and we’re getting a lot of lucky things that are going our way,”” said UA guard Jawann McClellan. “”We had a lucky things going our way in the beginning of the season when we could have easily lost to (Texas) A&M, Illinois, all the teams we came back from behind. Then it caught up to us at the beginning of the season, and now we’re back on track.””

    The simple answer for why Arizona’s back on track? The return of guard Jerryd Bayless, who missed four games with a sprained knee in which the Wildcats went 1-3.

    Arizona has won four of five since his return, with the only loss coming Jan. 17 during the “”Shoegate”” Stanford game, a contest Bayless struggled in. Before that, the Wildcats started the season 9-2.

    “”The only stretch of basketball we haven’t played well is when Jerryd Bayless was hurt,”” said interim head coach Kevin O’Neill. “”We had great rhythm until Jerryd got hurt, and then we were bad, and we’ve had pretty good rhythm since he’s been back.””

    Before the Cal game, O’Neill called the troops together to talk things out. the players followed with a team meeting of their own that forward Chase Budinger said was “”inspirational”” and brought the squad closer together with everybody airing their opinions out.

    The Wildcats also decided to run more motion in their offense instead of set plays every time down, which Budinger said has helped, leading to Arizona assisting on 37 of its 50 baskets this weekend (74 percent).

    “”It lets us play our games, and everybody on our team is very unselfish and we’re all good players, so when we’re able to just go out there and play we make good things happen,”” he said. “”We’re a team that everybody likes each other, we love playing with each other, and that’s how good teams have to be.””

    That led Arizona to 12- and 15-point victories over the Washington schools, its first weekend sweep of the year.

    On a day when three other Pac-10 games went down to the wire, as has been the norm in the conference season thus far, walking victory cigar David Bagga even got some action against Washington in a rare blowout win against a team that had won three in a row.

    “”When you blow a team out you have to have played extremely well,”” Budinger said, “”and that’s what we did (Saturday), we played extremely well on both ends of the floor.””

    One big reason for that is because forward Jordan Hill stayed out of foul trouble this weekend, a key that both Budinger and McClellan brought up unprompted. Hill played all but five minutes in the two games and was a menace on both sides of the ball.

    He recorded a pair of double-figure rebound games and blocked 11 shots over the weekend, as he is turning into a tremendous help defender although he struggles at times guarding his man.

    Then on the offensive end, Hill’s presence created space on the perimeter for Budinger and Bayless. Washington State sent a few hard double teams at Hill, while Washington also packed it in at times, opening up the outside for Arizona to hit 13-of-22 3-pointers (59.1 percent).

    “”What happens is (when) Jordan’s in foul trouble we don’t have a real inside presence, so what people do is they absolutely bury into Jerryd and Chase all over the place, and then it’s hard to get shots,”” O’Neill said. “”When Jerryd and Chase get open shots, they’re going to make them unless they’re exhausted.””

    The exhaustion issue remains a problem as O’Neill continues to play his key players very heavy minutes, with Bayless, Budinger and McClellan among the top six in the conference in minutes, but teams throughout the conference are shortening their rotations with these games getting bigger by the weekend.

    Although Bayless, Budinger and Hill could be playing for the NBA – as forward Marcus Williams of last year’s team was often dogged for doing – McClellan said the difference between this year’s and last year’s team is that the current Wildcats aren’t doing that.

    “”We’re both talented, but we don’t get caught up in all the egos and all the hype around the team,”” he said. “”This year’s team is just going out there and playing basketball, and nobody’s worried about their future down the road.””

    Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar didn’t feel his team played particularly bad in the blowout, instead saying, “”We played against a team who found their rhythm, and it was difficult to get them out of their rhythm.””

    After a weekend in which it shot 58.8 percent to win two games by a combined 27 points, including one over the No. 6 team, it sure looks that way.

    Before heading to Los Angeles for a brutal road trip against a USC team that’s won four in a row and first-place UCLA, who is ranked No. 8 in the nation, the Wildcats can take pride in knowing a year threatening to spiral out of control has started to look more like a typical Arizona basketball season.

    “”I think we’ve proven that we’re for real,”” Bayless said.

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