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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Finding their legs

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Alan Walsh
Alan Walsh / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Getting back on the path to improvement — that’s the only choice for the Arizona men’s basketball team.

The Wildcats started off 6-3 in the Pacific 10 Conference and at that point had taken down California to gain the conference lead. Now at 13-13 with a 7-7 conference record, Arizona travels to the Bay Area to again face the now-Pac-10-leading Bears (18-9, 10-5) tonight at 7.

As the season progressed, reality struck as the Wildcats stepped off the path of improvement.

“”We have four regular season games left, and we’re going to try to win each one of them,”” said head coach Sean Miller. “”But I think that the (Feb. 13) Oregon State game in particular hurt us for a lot of reasons.””

Against the Beavers, the Wildcats showed little of the improvement they had made since November. It was “”rock bottom”” for Miller, who had up to that point seen steady growth from his players.

“”I thought (Oregon State) had a really good game plan, but that took a little wind out of our sail emotionally,”” he said.

That derailment still lingers, and it will until Arizona can earn another victory.

But after a loss to ASU the following week, Miller said he was much happier with the team’s effort. Despite that fact, it was seemingly the ASU game that proved rock bottom for the players.

“”It’s very frustrating,”” said guard Momo Jones. “”But at the same time, we have to come to reality. We have to bounce back these next four games, and whether we win them or not, we still have to go out there.””

Youth could be the reason for the Wildcats’ recent struggles.

Last week, junior Jamelle Horne said it was about that time in the season where bodies are noticeably sore, but Miller hasn’t used that as an excuse. Even on the mental side of things, Miller said the youngsters are battle-tested enough to deem them more mature than freshmen.

While he hasn’t attributed recent losses to youth, he did admit there was much room to grow.

“”I don’t think mental toughness is one of our team’s strong suits,”” Miller said. “”I think we’ve been pretty resilient, being able to go from a tough loss then to a big win. We’ve been able to stay with that.

“”When you ask about competitive character, mental toughness, physical toughness,”” he added, “”that’s something we have a long way to go to be in a good category.””

That weakness has been evident on defense. The Wildcats haven’t been able to make key stops during crunch time.

“”Our room for error is razor thin,”” Miller said. “”Some of the improvement I’d hoped to have seen, (I) didn’t experience it, especially on defense on the last two games.””

On the offensive side of things, Miller hasn’t been disappointed with his team’s play despite its inability to get out in transition for easy opportunities.

For the most part, the Wildcats have gotten to the free-throw line against a number of zone defenses they’ve faced in the past two weeks and have kept games close. Looking toward the Cal game and Saturday’s 5 p.m. game in Palo Alto, Calif., against the Stanford Cardinal, Arizona will be matched against more man-to-man oriented teams.

But that doesn’t leave room for optimism. Jones said he thinks man-to-man teams will throw in zones to keep Arizona out of rhythm.

“”That’s just how I feel,”” Jones said. “”I think we’ll do our regular practice plan but at the end of the day if a team does man on us, and if it just so happens that we play the way we regularly play, I think they’ll fall back into a zone.

“”It’ll be on us to really cope mentally to really come together as a team to go, ‘We’re not going to let this beat us again.'””

Optimism still runs through Arizona, especially with a glimmer of hope remaining to make the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats would need to sweep through the conference at the Pac-10 Tournament in Los Angeles.

To do that, they’ll need to gain traction and build momentum through the final four regular season games.

“”One of the things that I’ve really pointed to and really still do,”” Miller said, “”is there’s not a team that has a better upside or opportunity in the month of February than Arizona.””

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