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Struggling Arizona still has hope

January 31, 2007|Robyn Norwood

These seem like dark days in the desert after Arizona's 92-64 loss to North Carolina on Saturday.

Even though there are lots of disappointed Wildcats fans who had been hoping Arizona would bolster the Pacific-10 Conference's stock -- UCLA Coach Ben Howland was openly saying, "Go, Arizona," in the days before the game -- Arizona is in absolutely no trouble at this point in qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

Despite losing a stunning five of their last seven games, the Wildcats' Ratings Percentage Index ranking is still No. 6, so Lute Olson's 22-year NCAA tournament appearance streak appears fine.

Still, Arizona has rarely looked as bad as it has during its recent offensive funk, going one for 23 from three-point range against North Carolina, and shooting less than 40% from the field in three of the last four games.

At 14-6, Arizona looks tired and beaten. You can blame the nonconference schedule Olson made, which is rated the most difficult in the country, just ahead of UCLA's.

Or you can blame the luck of the draw with the Pac-10 schedule, which already has taken Arizona to Washington, Washington State, USC and UCLA, handing the Wildcats three of their four Pac-10 losses on the road.

Other factors seem to be at work too, though.

There's Arizona's lack of depth: All five starters average more than 31 minutes a game, and point guard Mustafa Shakur averages more than 35.

The emergence of freshman forward Jordan Hill, who logged major minutes and made a big contribution the last two games, could help, along with the return of forward Bret Brielmaier, who had been out after minor knee surgery.

Still another issue is Arizona's style. The Wildcats focus too much on offense and not enough on grit and defense in a conference that has changed around them.

Since Howland's arrival at UCLA, Tim Floyd's arrival at USC and the emerging success of the system Dick and Tony Bennett installed at Washington State, the Pac-10 is a more defensive conference. The wide-open offensive teams increasingly need to be able to play in the half-court, and Arizona has yet to adjust.

Olson is drawing confidence from a 71-47 victory over last-place Arizona State in which the Wildcats shot 50%. But this week, they play host to Washington State -- which beat Arizona in overtime in Pullman -- and Washington.

Leading scorer Marcus Williams is expected to play after being suspended for unspecified reasons for the Arizona State game and missing much of the North Carolina game because of a sprained ankle.

Floyd is still among the believers, saying Arizona is still a potential Final Four team.

Olson isn't panicking, saying the schedule is in the Wildcats' favor since they've already made what he considers the two toughest trips in the Pac-10 this season, to Southern California and the Washington schools.

"I think we're OK," he said. "We played very well against Arizona State and got the win we needed there. Now it's just a challenge to our guys: 'OK, the first round in league, we lost one at the buzzer, one in overtime and two others that were very competitive games. We just need to see whether we can do things better the second time around.' "

Halfway Home

At the midway point of the conference season, Oregon guard Aaron Brooks looks like the Pac-10 player of the year.

A season after slumping to 10.8 points a game, he leads the Pac-10 with a 19.1-point average and has hit game-winning shots against UCLA and Arizona.

Oregon Coach Ernie Kent, who brings his Ducks to face UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday, said the maturity that has emerged since Brooks became a father last May has shown on the court.

Just maybe not during halftime of last week's loss to Washington -- a game for which Brooks was suspended as part of a penalty for throwing a forearm to the chin of Washington's Ryan Appleby during last season's Pac-10 tournament.

"I think it was really hard on him," Kent said. "He watched the game from his aunt's house, and tried to 'text' our point guard at halftime. I said, 'Tajuan Porter better not be looking at a text message at halftime of a game.' "

Oregon State Coach Jay John called Brooks virtually unstoppable coming off a ball screen at the end of the game. Arizona's Olson praised his turnaround too.

"Before, I think in some ways Brooks was a loose cannon, and now I think he's the steadying influence of that team, plus a great shooter and great driver, difficult to handle," Olson said. "But his maturity as a team leader, that's the biggest thing."

Kent was more effusive.

"What he's meant to us has been everything. He's won a lot of games for us. He's a tireless player," Kent said. ""I think he's right now playing like one of the top-five players in the country."

Your Place or Ours?

This must be Division II, because we can't fathom any major-college programs cooperating like this.

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