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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Roy: ‘Cats begin Pac-10 in similarly optimistic Bay Area

    UA forward Jordan Hill grabs a rebound against Kansas in the Wildcats 84-69 win in McKale Center on Dec. 23. Arizona enters its Pacific 10 Conference schedule tonight against California.
    UA forward Jordan Hill grabs a rebound against Kansas in the Wildcats’ 84-69 win in McKale Center on Dec. 23. Arizona enters its Pacific 10 Conference schedule tonight against California.

    Arizona vs. California
    Time: 6:30 p.m. TV: FS Arizona

    A trio of consecutive and rather decisive Pacific 10 Conference championships has anointed UCLA basketball a league of its own.

    Three seasons, three miles of progression. The Bruins have gradually elevate a gap between Ben Howland’s nationally touted powerhouse and the rest of the Pac-10. Dating back to the 2005-06 season, they’ve finished 14-4, 15-3 and 16-2 in conference play, respectively.

    Any fifth grader could identify the given pattern, and then predict a 17-1 finish for this upcoming Pac-10 season. Simple math for a team that has simply won.

    Ah, but that’s why you actually are smarter than a fifth grader. Well, at least, the UA men’s basketball team is.

    Although No. 12 UCLA still enters another January favored to rise atop again, the gap certainly shouldn’t grow in the Bruins’ favor.

    Both No. 8 Texas and No. 23 Michigan exposed the Bruins already this season, begging bracketologists to ask: Can this team really reach its fourth straight Final Four appearance?

    With losses against both of their marquee opponents, the Bruins (10-2) enter Pac-10 play with lunch-money-stealing victories over lonely mid-majors.

    Can somebody finally put a legitimate dent into UCLA’s reign?

    It’s the best opportunity any team has received in recent memory. And a confident Arizona likes its chances.

    “”I think this year, unlike other years, I don’t think there’s a real dominant team,”” UA interim head coach Russ Pennell said. “”I still think UCLA’s really good. … But I don’t think the gap between UCLA and everyone else is as big as it has been in the past.””

    Added UA forward Chase Budinger: “”The main thing is we don’t listen to outside people. We don’t listen to people like you guys. We don’t listen to the media. We just focus on our team.””

    Arizona (9-3) embarks on the third phase of its 2008-09 campaign tonight, opening Pac-10 play against a California (11-2) team that has similarly exceeded its preseason expectations.

    They play tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Haas Pavilion.

    “”We know what we have, and we know what we need to do,”” Budinger said. “”We need to focus on one game at a time.””

    Pennell completed the introductory portion of his schedule only blemished with a heart-breaking (but probably blessing in disguise) loss to UAB.

    The competition progressively improved, and Pennell managed to survive the benchmark phase of their nonconference schedule with signature wins over then-No. 4 Gonzaga and Kansas.

    Now, after the 2009 ball dropped in Times Square, it’s time for the Wildcats to avoid dropping the ball to their progressive start.

    But the Wildcats aren’t alone by any means.

    Meet tonight’s matchup against an eerily similar California team. First-year head coach Mike Montgomery implemented his new style and picked up a few big wins along the way.

    Sound familiar?

    Montgomery, a longtime Bay Area guy, even at Cal’s rival Stanford, picked up bubble-building road wins over UNLV and Utah thus far. The Bears suffered a blowout loss to Missouri and Florida State on a neutral court.

    New coach. New style. A couple key wins. A couple losses. Even in comparison to last year’s squads, both teams lost their go-to guys to the NBA Draft’s mid-first round.

    Those are your traditional signs that can automatically lower season expectations and keep arenas from selling out.

    Sound a little more familiar?

    Remove Haas Pavilion’s hardwood – a mirror would be more like it.

    But either way, exceeding preseason expectations doesn’t exactly spell success for very long. The Wildcats know how quick a statement win can suddenly disappear. (See: UNLV, Loss to).

    “”I think we have a lot to prove, period,”” Pennell said. “”We’re 9-3 and I’m really about that, but I don’t know if people are really taking us all that serious. We are a good basketball team when we’ve got everything moving in the right direction, when we’re healthy, when we’re active.

    “”We really are not looking at the fact that we’re 9-3,”” added Pennell. “”We’re looking at, can we get better, and the California Golden Bears. That’s all we can look at in front of us.””

    It’s the portion of the season that Arizona’s Big Three veterans can call familiar. With two years of experience under their belts, Budinger knows the ins and outs of maintaining ground throughout the demanding schedule – it’s keeping rested.

    This comes from the guy who averages a team-leading 36.2 minutes per game thus far.

    “”The thing about the Pac-10 season is that it kind of wears on you,”” Budinger said. “”My freshman year, I hit a wall my freshman year, pretty much the middle of the Pac-10. It’s tough to get over that hump, and I’ve been telling the guys to try to get as much rest as you can; try to keep the body healthy and try to get in the mind that it’s a long, long Pac-10 journey.””

    Added UA forward Jamelle Horne: “”Pac-10 play pretty much is what it’s all about. Second latter of the season, and everyone’s looking forward to it; the guys are all excited about it. We’re not banged up.””

    ‘Cats kept focus on defending the arc

    Two losses this year have come a large part from Arizona’s inability to defend 3-pointers.

    UAB exposed the Wildcats first, with a 13-for-30 performance from 3-point land; then UNLV shot 14-for-31 led by guard Wink Adams’ 7-for-12 hot hand.

    Cal’s three leading scorers can all be threats from beyond the arc. Guards Jerome Randle (19.5 points per game) Patrick Christopher (14.0) and Theo Robertson (21.1) account for 69 of the Bears’ 82 total 3s.

    “”The 3-point shot has been our back breaker this year,”” UA forward Jamelle Horne said. “”But the coaches have been harping on us in practice. … We don’t want to let them get going, because then it’s going to be a tough game.””

    Bryan Roy is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu

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