TUCSON — Its loss to Washington in Seattle last week and its struggles against USC Thursday night make Arizona seem vulnerable, but beating the Wildcats will still be a tall order for UCLA today in the McKale Center.
Coach Lute Olson's team hasn't lost at Tucson in almost four years, winning its last 55 games in the McKale Center.
Lately, though, the Wildcats haven't seemed as imposing.
Until Nevada Las Vegas earned a reprieve from the NCAA, which reversed an earlier decision and ruled that the Rebels could play in the NCAA tournament this season, Arizona looked like the team to beat for the national championship after it won the preseason NIT last November.
Arizona, with a 6-foot-11 forward, a 6-11 center and a 7-foot reserve center among its top eight players, overpowered second-ranked Arkansas, 89-77, in the NIT final in New York.
Since then, though, the Wildcats seem to have slipped a bit. They lost to Louisiana State at Baton Rogue, La., which really wasn't so surprising, but then they made only 34% of their shots and lost to Washington, 70-56, in their Pacific 10 Conference opener.
They trailed Washington State at halftime before rallying to win at Pullman, Wash., and they barely hung on to beat USC, 87-85.
So, what's wrong?
Nothing that won't improve over time, Olson intimated.
The Wildcats' 12-2 start is their second-best in eight seasons under Olson, but it doesn't look as if they will dominate the Pac-10 as they have in earning at least a share of the conference title in the last three years.
"We're still in early January," Olson said. "We've still got well over two months of the season still to go. We're always looking toward improvement, but I think we're playing teams now that are tougher than any of the teams we played in the preseason, including Arkansas."
Washington is better than Arkansas or Louisiana State?
"If we shoot 34%, we're going to get beat, just like every other team in America is going to get beat if it shoots 34%," Olson said.
Arizona shot 55.8% against Washington State, 50.9% against USC.
"I felt we played better against USC than we did against Arkansas," Olson said. "That was a very good team we played."
Still, despite his initial protestations, Olson eventually admitted that something has been missing in McKale this season--namely, the contributions of forward Jud Buechler, who was the Wildcats' top scorer and rebounder and emotional leader as a senior last season.
Buechler's replacement in the starting lineup, transfer Chris Mills from Kentucky, is Arizona's leading scorer and No. 3 rebounder, but Mills hasn't been as consistent as Buechler.
In terms of leadership, Buechler has been irreplaceable.
"The fact that he was such a positive, up kind of guy was awfully important to us," Olson said.
And on occasion, the Wildcats have lacked fire, Olson said. "We need to have all five people on the court playing with enthusiasm, which at times has been lacking in one or two positions," he said.