Monday, February 9, 2009

Arizona's Punctual Postseason Push?

The Wildcats season started up and down and continued that way through the first half of conference play. A few big wins (Gonzaga, San Diego State, Kansas) but more tough losses and worse yet 0-fer on the road left Cat fans with a bad feeling in their gut. It got even worse after a disappointing last second loss to USC and losing a heart-breaker to Arizona State (Thanks to referee Dave Libbey), and it looked as if Arizona was going to have to choose between the NIT and the CBI Tournaments at the end of the year...if there was any interest.

But it began to turn around and last week I went into a territory unfamiliar to Arizona fans of the last quarter century, debating what it would take out of the Cats to make it to March and play in the tourney. At the time the Cats were red hot. They were holding on to a 3 game win streak, starting with the Aubrey Coleman tap dance against Houston, which then rolled into a big win over Washington State, and an even bigger win over Washington to put the Cats at 14-8 (4-5) and showing signs of life heading into the back half of Pac-10 play.

The first question at hand was whether or not the Cats could overcome their 0-6 road record on the Oregon Trail. If they couldn't the season was over. While watching the Oregon State game on Thursday I told my wife 2 things: that that game was the biggest game of the season for Arizona, and that if there were a drinking game to take a drink every time you heard Michelle, Barack, Obama, President, White House, Inauguration, or in-law, making it to halftime would be nearly impossible. While those rules might usually make sense while watching CNN, I don't need to hear it every time the camera lands on the Head Coach of a Division I Basketball team. (Getting off track....)

Then on Saturday while watching the Oregon game, I informed her that that game was the biggest of the season for the Cats. She looked at me with confusion. I then had to explain that each game over the next four weeks would be the most important game until the Cats were at 21 wins or mathematically eliminated. Needless to say she wasn't happy about what that meant for Thursdays, Saturdays, and one Sunday over the next month.

The Cats pulled through and got two much needed road wins up in Oregon, and officially put themselves on the Bubble according to most Certified Bracketoligists out there. Even Interim Coach Russ Pennell is liking the Cats chances. He was spotted growing what one can only assume is a playoff beard in Oregon. This gives Arizona some very important confidence, swagger, and breathing room. Last week I said the Cats needed to hit the 21 regular season win mark in order for me to relax. Though I have heard and read over the last 72 hours that 20 is the mark, or at least should be, I still contend that 20 wins (4-3 from this point on) will leave them at 10-8 in the Pac and at least one win in the Pac-10 Tournament will be needed for them to have a chance. Which brings us back to that 21 win pace. What do the Cats have left?

Seven games. Four home, three away. Arizona stands in 6th place in the Pac-10 right now, and numbers 1-5 happen to take up 5 of the next 7 games. Against those teams Arizona is 2-5. With the way the Cats have been playing lately I see them being much more competitive than they were on their original California road trips where they compiled an 0-4 record. But this time the Cats will be wearing the white jerseys and playing in front of a new youthful McKale Center audience. When it boils down I see one thing, over the last 5 games (@ASU, @WSU, @UW, vs Cal, and vs Stan) a 3-2 record.

What this means is that this Thursday, is the most important game of the season for Arizona, at least until Saturday. If the Cats can get back that dumb loss they had against USC and take down their second Pac-10 #1 in 3 weeks, then they are poised to go far. One or two losses this weekend mean an uphill battle the rest of the way, backs against the wall.

How will the rest of the Pac-10 finish up.

UCLA: 7-1 or 6-2, they drop one on their trip to Arizona (whether it's UA or ASU we'll have to see) and should ride this thing out through March. They make other teams play their brand of basketball, of their 23 games, only four times have teams scored over 65 against the Bruins. 7-1 seems likely.

WASH: 5-2 or 4-3, they only hit the road once more and have already beaten 7 of the Pac-10 teams. Could get caught looking ahead for revenge against UA and lose focus against ASU. Started conference play 6-1, but is 2-2 over their last 4. ASU and USC will be looking for blood when they face the Huskies, UCLA is at the top of their game, and Arizona is playing with their back against the wall. 4-3 seems the most likely.

ASU: 4-3, they have been proven, time and time again that they aren't as strong as they appear at first. Losses to Baylor and Washington State (at home), close calls against IUPUI and BYU, and offensive struggles (less than 70 points in 7 of the last 9) show signs of possible troubles looming, plus they don't have the Oregon schools to pick on anymore.

CAL: 4-3 or 3-4, they are 4-3 over their last 7 with one of those losses coming at home to Oregon State. They look to have righted the ship against the Washington schools, but face a tough test of 4 out of the last 7 on the road. Including what should be a huge weekend against the Arizona schools. 3-4 seems the most plausible based on recent struggles.

USC: 5-3 or 4-4, one thing you can say about the Trojans is that they've battled this year. 10 of their games this season have been decided by 5 or less points and they were a dumb Jamelle Horne foul away from another overtime game when UA visited in January. With a most likely 3-1 or 4-0 record against the Washington and Oregon schools, their trips to hostile Arizona and the Bay Area (Cal, Stanford) should make or break their season. They hold wins over 6 of their remaining 8 opponents. I'm leaning towards 5-3.

UA: As much as I want to say the Cats go 5-2, it's more likely that 4-3 will be the outcome.

If it all breaks down like I think it will the final tallies going into the Pac-10 Tournament will have:

UCLA: 26-5 (15-3)
WASH: 22-9 (14-6)
ASU: 22-8 (11-7)
CAL: 21-10 (10-8)
USC: 20-10 (11-7)
UA: 20-11 (10-8)

Based on this, it looks like the Cats will have to win in the 2nd round of the Pac-10 Tournament versus. Remember the Top Six teams get a first round bye, so there's a chance that it could be Arizona vs. Arizona State in the second round giving the Sun Devils a chance to, possibly, knock the Wildcats out of the tournament.

Interesting side note, Arizona knocked ASU out of a Bowl Game in football this year, and according to some, the Cats took the Sun Devils NCAA Basketball at-large bid last year. Plus the Sun Devils knocked the Cats out of a Bowl Game in 2006 and 2007. Maybe the pendulum is swinging and the Cats are becoming the Football power, while the Devils are becoming the Basketball power. This rivalry is by far the most underrated in college sports. But that's another issue for another time.