Many people are asking the same question, just what the hell happened to the Arizona Wildcats? Before the season started, some prognosticators had the Wildcats winning the PAC-10 title, now midway through the conference schedule; they’re clinging to a life raft hoping that they can limp into the Tournament in March.
It was barely less than a month ago when Arizona was seemingly invincible running through opponents with ease garnering their highest ranking of the season at seventh overall in the AP Poll. The 28 point drubbing at the hands of North Carolina this past weekend proving to be the low point of the season for the Wildcats, desperately searching for the magic that seems to have all but disappeared.
So what exactly is wrong with Zona? Well, lets start with the defense. They’ve been horrendous all season and seem to struggle with the most basic defensive assignments. Lets face it, the Wildcats will never reach the level of say a UCLA defensively, but if they're allowing teams to score over 70 points per game against them (including 92 against UNC), clearly that is something that needs to be fixed. Talent and physical ability have never been a problem for Arizona, however defense is based mostly on hustle and teamwork. Attributes that appear to be lacking, so far, in this year's version.
If you look at the 12-game winning streak the Wildcats went on during the Nov-Dec stretch, you'll notice they shot slightly above 50% from the field and just over 40% from beyond the arc. Contrast that with the last seven games where the Wildcats are shooting barely 40% from the field and 20% from three-point land and it's easy to see what's wrong there. Why the drop in shooting percentage?? Could be fatigue, the Wildcats played a tough non-conference schedule and the number of games could be catching up to them. Could be a weak bench, after a solid starting five, none of the bench players average more than four points per game (Hill leads at 3.2 ppg). Without a bonafide sixth-man, the Cats offense becomes anemic when the starting five come off. Whatever the case, given their defensive deficiencies, the only hope is that they’re hitting perimeter shots.
Some have suggested that the coaching is the problem, that Lute Olson has been unable to get this ultra-talented squad to reach its potential. Everyone knows that Olson is a great recruiter, and his legacy of player development is phenomenal just taking into account the number of great players he has coached to the NBA. On the one hand, there's little to fault Olson for as it is the players after all that cannot hit their shots and cannot defend. But in the UNC game, clearly, the Wildcats were not nearly as prepared as their opponent and ultimately that did play a role in the big loss. This group, as talented as they are, could be the most enigmatic that Olson's ever had and could end in disaster if Olson is unable to reach through to them.
Despite the doom and gloom, there is still reason for much optimism. The Wildcats are still a freakishly talented team. Even with the combination of horrendous defense, terrible turnovers, and apparent chemistry problems, if they simply hit their shots, the Cats would score enough to win on almost any given night. That is how scary good they can be. I don't know if the they’ll tank it from here, limp into the Tournament, or win out their schedule, but get ready Zona fans, cuz it's going to be one hell of a ride all the way to March…