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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Program has lost a few steps

    WASHINGTON – The question has rattled around McKale Center for the past three years: Is Arizona basketball still elite?

    After the No. 10-seeded Wildcats’ 75-65 loss to No. 7-seeded West Virginia on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it’s clear the program has fallen a few pegs below the UCLAs, Kansases and North Carolinas of the nation.

    Hell, even ASU is catching up.

    The past two seasons the Wildcats have attained low water mark after low water mark dating back to the year before they started their streak of reaching 24 straight NCAA tournaments, 1983-84.

    This includes winning fewer than 11 games in league play and finishing lower than fifth in the Pacific 10 Conference this year and losing three straight in league play in each of the last two seasons after never doing so in the previous 22.

    The team has now lost in the first round for consecutive years for the first time since 1992-93, but Arizona suffered major upsets to No. 14 and 15 seeds back then whereas these losses were no big surprise.

    By losing in the first round, the team finished just four games over .500 and saw the nation’s longest active streak of 20 straight 20-win seasons go to the way side this year.

    Against the Mountaineers, UA forward Jordan Hill shockingly said the team did not come out ready to play in the do or die tournament game. Not shockingly, he said the team was not on its ‘A’ game, allowing West Virginia to hit 11-of-19 3-pointers (57.9 percent).

    “”It just wasn’t thinking,”” Hill said. “”We wasn’t even talking as much. We’re usually a team that has a lot of energy and talks on defense and offense, but we didn’t say nothing. That lost us a little bit.””

    The tournament loss exposed many of the flaws that have haunted Arizona all year.

    The Mountaineers’ defense frustrated Jerryd Bayless and took him out of his game a bit, forward Chase Budinger struggled guarding people, Hill picked up cheap fouls in bunches that robbed the team of its only post player and guard Jawann McClellan didn’t score.

    At times Bayless and Budinger tried to go one-on-one, forgetting about the team game the Wildcats have utilized when at their best this season.

    There’s no need to mention anything to do with the bench, because it did not play any role in the game and barely made a dent during the season. Outside of a one-minute rest for Budinger, the bench only played when Hill got into foul trouble (seven minutes) and guard Nic Wise rolled his ankle (two).

    “”This is not your typical Arizona team where you have eight or nine pros running up and down the court,”” said UA guard Jawann McClellan.

    The frustrating part about the squad is those five players are really good. Bayless has been rumored to be a high lottery pick, Budinger could be a low one and Hill has the ability to be a first-round pick as well. That’s three NBA players to go with a senior leader in McClellan and a sparkplug distributor in Wise.

    Add that core minus McClellan to incoming freshman Brandon Jennings, who has been named the nation’s best point guard by ESPN.com, as well as potential impact freshmen in center Jeff Withey and forward Emmanuel Negedu, these dark days may be ending soon.

    “”I’m pretty sure they’ll rebound,”” McClellan said. “”If everybody stays, they’re my pick to win the whole thing next year. They have a good team if everybody stays and with the recruits coming in, so I’m not too worried about Arizona depending on if they stay or not.

    “”(If) Jerryd and Chase come back and Jordan comes back and you’ve got Brandon coming in, nobody can stop them if they come back,”” McClellan added.

    Even with the lack of depth on the current squad, the team nearly pulled off two upsets against eventual No. 3 seed Stanford, one against No. 1 seed UCLA and another at No. 1 seed Kansas.

    “”Don’t forget this is a really young group (with four underclassmen among the regulars), and West Virginia played like a veteran group (Thursday) and ground it out and did to us what we want to do to other people,”” said UA interim head coach Kevin O’Neill. “”Our youth will learn a lot from (Thursday), hopefully from this season.””

    The program’s now at a crossroads. Depending on who stays and who goes, it could be a preseason Final Four favorite or it could be Oak Hill Academy, with Jennings head and shoulders better than his teammates.

    “”Every program has to rebuild at some point,”” McClellan said. “”It might be next year, it might be after that.””

    Even the UCLAs, Kansas and North Carolinas have missed the tournament during their rebuilding years, something Arizona hasn’t done yet.

    But with long-term uncertainty on the coaching staff, it sure seems like the worst is yet to come.

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