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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: It’s soul-searching time for the Arizona Wildcats

James Kelley

Arizona men’s basketball head coach speaks to the media after the team’s 71-67 defeat against UNLV in the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Wildcats have work to do going forward to ensure this loss was a productive one.

LAS VEGAS — Arizona men’s basketball got coal in its stocking on Dec. 23, and that’s a good thing. Had the Wildcats (12-1) made one of those three chances in the final minute and miraculously won a game they had no business winning, it would have actually hurt them in the long run.

Arizona lost 71-67 to a UNLV (8-3) team that got spanked by 22 points against lowly ASU. It’s the perfect wake up call.

When Arizona head coach Sean Miller was asked about the Wildcats’ 39-game nonconference win streak ending, he said, “It’s good.”

“When you get that sick feeling when they storm the court — how it feels when the horn goes off — there’s nothing that simulates why you want to win more than that feeling,” Miller said.

While it’s already surprising to hear a coach say a loss was a good thing, it is much more so because, for weeks, Miller has bragged about Arizona’s impressive streak. The Wildcats took on all comers, from Hawaii to New York, from South Carolina to Michigan, last losing to a non Pac-12 Conference team outside of the NCAA tournament in December 2011, to Gonzaga in Seattle.

In the last two seasons, the Wildcats would have somehow pulled off the win, but they’re not that good yet. Arizona is not invincible, and it isn’t at the point where it can always “play badly and win,” to borrow a quote from UA football head coach Rich Rodriguez.

“At this point, when you take a loss like that, you really make sure you lock in and focus,” UA forward Brandon Ashley said after his first loss in a nonconference game during the regular season as a Wildcat. “At this point, it really opens up everybody’s eyes that we’re not unbeatable [or] one of those teams that’s untouchable.”

Thanks to the UA’s front-loaded schedule, it has a huge break before its next game on Jan. 4 versus ASU.

“Moving forward, I think we have an ideal opportunity to get their attention, and we have to figure out what can make us better,” Miller said.

The Wildcats not only played all their nonconference games before Christmas, they also play the Sun Devils on a Sunday, starting their Pac-12 slate two days after the rest of their league mates.

“With the amount of time that we have off now before our conference begins, there’s going to be some really, really hard days in McKale Center for the next 10 to 12 days,” Miller said.

The Wildcats seem to have lost the identity that got them the No. 1 seed in the West last year.

The Runnin’ Rebels out-rebounded the Wildcats 46-33. Only three other teams (Missouri, San Diego State and Gonzaga) had done that before the game.

“They punished us on the glass,” Miller said. “We got out-rebounded by 13 rebounds to a team that’s been out-rebounded on the season.”

They also haven’t been playing the stout defense we are accustomed to seeing.

UNLV forwards Christian Wood and Rashad Vaughn scored 24 and 21 points, respectively. Before Tuesday, Wood averaged 12.9 points per game and Vaughn 17.3 points per game.

“We didn’t have an answer for Christian Wood and Rashad Vaughn,” Miller said. “Those guys had 19 field goals.”

Finally, the Wildcats seemed to have forgotten their bench back in Tucson, as the reserves scored six points in El Paso and Las Vegas. Where are all those stars that those heavily recruited backups accumulated?

Arizona’s practices should be a war before ASU, and that competition should get it right.

“We’re going to find out who wants to play hard, who wants to play defense and who doesn’t,” Miller said.

The end of the streak hurts, but who knows? Maybe it could light a fire under the Wildcats and lead to a nonconference win streak that includes the NCAA tournament this time.

“It’s definitely something that we talked about,” Ashley said. “It was something that we wanted to continue, definitely part of the legacy that we were trying to build. But at the same time, things happen. You lose games, and we got to just move on and keep our heads up and focus on the rest of the season.”

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