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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Cats right where they were last year

    March 15, 2007 Bret Brielmaier throws a ball around in the locker room before Arizonas practice at the New Orleans Arena, Thursday, March 15, 2007 in New Orleans.
    Chris Coduto
    March 15, 2007 Bret Brielmaier throws a ball around in the locker room before Arizona’s practice at the New Orleans Arena, Thursday, March 15, 2007 in New Orleans.

    NEW ORLEANS – A new season, a different team, a better attitude, but the same common denominator. A No. 8 seed, a first-round game against a physical Big Ten opponent and a potential second-round matchup with a high-powered No. 1.

    Clearly, on the surface a deep run in the tournament doesn’t look promising. The No. 8 seed Wildcats (20-10) head into Friday’s 4:20 p.m. matchup against No. 9 seed Purdue (21-10) at New Orleans Arena not as an underdog but with lower expectations than usual.

    “”I think it’s a good thing that people don’t expect us to go that far,”” forward Chase Budinger said. “”It gives us a chance to shut everybody up. Just family, just the team, not think about all the outside influences at all, and just stick together. I think we’re here to show everybody we’re better than the seed they gave us.””

    Senior Mustafa Shakur said his fourth NCAA Tournament appearance resembled last year’s most, when the Wildcats dominated Wisconsin before falling to Villanova in a close game.

    Shakur played 25 minutes against Oregon in Arizona’s 19-point loss in the Pac-10 tournament and has averaged just 4.5 points and 4.8 assists in the last four games.

    “”He responds well to pressure, and we have tried to focus on his mentality the whole time this year,”” UA head coach Lute Olson said. “”Last year he had a great NCAA Tournament, and we have tried to remind him of that. I think he has learned from his experiences, and when he has a lot of assists and less points in a game, we have had more success as a team.””

    Speculation about a lineup change fell on deaf years with Shakur, but the point guard said he expected guard Jawann McClellan to see an increased role.

    “”Jawann will be out there a lot more,”” Shakur said. “”I can’t say if it’s gonna change or not, but Jawann will be out there a lot.””

    McClellan had played 18 minutes in each of his last two games he’s been healthy for (he missed March 3’s game at Stanford due to a shoulder injury) after playing three and eight minutes against ASU and UCLA, respectively, the two contests before that. He started the first 22 games, but has come off the bench in the last eight games and is shooting 32.3 percent from the field in his last 16 games.

    “”I think that he is really ready to help us, and he will be our first guy off the bench,”” Olson said.

    Without guard Daniel Dillon, Olson said McClellan is “”our best defender and will guard the other team’s best perimeter player.””

    Defensively, Arizona has faltered for much of the second half of the season. The Wildcats finished seventh in the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage defense and ninth in 3-point field-goal percentage defense.

    In practice this week, Shakur said, the defensive deficiencies were nowhere to be found.

    “”This week has been tremendous as far as the defensive effort of everyone,”” said Shakur who gave Arizona an A+ for the week’s practice. “”Just really making it hard in the passing lanes, rebounding, everything, and guys just on the same page, having fun at the same time.””

    And this time, it wasn’t the coaches who preached energy and passion on the defensive end.

    “”Coach talks a lot about defensive intensity, but this week it was brought by the players,”” Shakur said.

    Inside Arizona’s locker room, you would be hard pressed to figure Arizona has underachieved this year. Amid the laughing and giggling, the players tossed a yellow rubber ball at each other.

    Still, they understand that the season made a turn for the worse and the next several days will be a chance to salvage what turned out to be a nearly identical result as last season.

    “”Everyone knows we have a lot of talent,”” forward Marcus Williams said. “”I’d say we’re an underdog because we’ve had somewhat of a disappointing season in some people’s eyes.””

    Going 0-6 against the top three teams in the Pacific 10 Confernece and losing three games by double figures haven’t shown opponents the Wildcats are tough to beat. Neither have the turnover-plagued games, the missed defensive assignments, nor the inconsistent shooting.

    Playing in the NCAA Tournament will be the ultimate test for whether the Wildcats’ talent and strengths can be displayed as it once was early this season.

    “”If it doesn’t happen (Friday), there’s not gonna be anymore season,”” Williams said.

    “”It’s gonna have to come out. Backs against the wall, we’re gonna show a lot of heart and some pride, and I think we can do that. It’s a loose locker room, loose team, everyone’s excited.””

    As Arizona prepares to challenge its shortcomings in the Big Easy, it has come to the realization that the road will be anything but easy.

    But at least, the road exists.

    “”There’s people who expect us to win (Friday) and then lose on Sunday, but they think that because of our defense,”” forward Jordan Hill said. “”If we get our defense (right) then nobody in this tournament can stop us.””

    And 1
    Arizona is 5-5 against Purdue in 10 all-time meetings.

    In the last meeting, Arizona won 79-66 on Dec. 8, 2001, at the John Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif.

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