Monday, March 16, 2009

Off The Bubble and In The Tourney

Shocking as it was to hear yesterday, our beloved Arizona Wildcats Basketball team had the Tourney Selection Gods looking down on them yesterday afternoon and they took into account the Cats big wins, and whatever other criteria they look at and announced to the world, that the streak is alive for another year. The Quest for 25 is complete.

25 years ago The Wildcats made their first appearance since the 1977 Dance. Lute Olson had begun his transformation of the Wildcat Basketball Program. Over the next 23 years he and the Cats went to 4 Sweet Sixteens, 3 Elite Eights, 2 Final Fours, a National Championship Loss, and a National Championship win. That's 11 out of 23 where Olson's Cats made it to the field of 16 or past.

Will the streak go on past 25? Not likely as the Cats are most likely losing Lottery Pick Jordan Hill and a Top 20 pick in Chase Budinger. Plus there isn't a whole lot of incoming Freshman to step in for them, no matter who the coach may be. So what does that mean for these Cats? It's time to put an exclamation point on the Streak.

The Wildcats got a pretty decent draw in the first round. Of the Four 12 seeds the opponents were Purdue, Illinois, Florida State, and Utah. Utah is by far the best draw for the Cats this week. Could the Cats have won against the other 3? Absolutely, when they are playing well, they proved they could win the big game, but when they are playing poorly they can't even beat Washington State.

So what will it take for the Cats to make it past the first round?

Big Game Budinger vs. Choke City Chase -
Which will we see this week? Will we see the Big Game Budinger who put up 25 points on 50% shooting and 43% from the Arc and snagged 8 boards against Washington or the Choke City Chase that was a ghost against Arizona State last week? More importantly, will it matter? In some the biggest games this year Chase has been less than amazing. In those big wins against Gonzaga and Kansas, Chase combined for 19 pts, 10 boards, 6 Assists, and 5 steals. The Cats were able to get big performances from other players and great defense.

If we see a solid Chase shooting. I'm not saying he needs to be on fire, but he can't keep jacking up shots if they aren't falling. But if he's shooting between 34-47% from the field, I'll be happy, if he's doing the other things. If he's not making the shot, then he needs to feed Wise and Hill, keep defenders from doubling up on Jordan, and make hustle plays. Chase was near nonexistent in that Kansas game, but he did have a huge ally-oop when a defender was asleep that got the crowd into the game. We need to see the Chase that does other things, grabs boards, blocks shots, and gets the loose ball.

Big Game from a Little Guy -
Nic Wise was on fire during the Cats 7 game win streak, with the exception of the Washington State game where he was double covered every time he stepped inside of the Arc. Wise has had 2 separate seasons. In the first 16 games he went over 20 twice. In the last 16 games he went for 20 5 times. When Wise is on it, the Cats are a much better team. He draws defenders and can beat 70% of the league off of the dribble not to mention his ridiculous acrobatic layups in the paint. In order for the Cats to advance Nic needs to do 2 things.

Stay in control. Yeah it's fun to watch Nic the Quick drive the paint, drop one of his spin moves and throw that layup off the glass. It's gets me off the couch or stool every single time. But teams are watching film, they know Nic. They know to stay home and not fall for the dribble drop step. What that means is Nic getting blocked a lot more which leaves the Cats struggling to set up an offense with less than 14 seconds on the Shot Clock if they get the ball. The other issue is his increased fouls. Wise fouled out once in the first half of the season and was in foul trouble in the second half only twice. In the second half of the season he has been in foul trouble with 2 or 3 fouls in the first half a few times, has fouled out twice and has been in foul trouble late in games 4 or 5 times. Most of those are charges. That's a turnover and a foul.

Control the ball. Nic needs to keep the ball in his possession as much as possible. He needs to control the tempo. Wait for things to develop. If Chase is hitting his shots get the ball to Chase for good looks. If Chase is cold, make sure to draw defenders away from Hill in the lane. The Cats can't afford to be looking settling for getting the ball to Jordan at the top of the key. That's not the best way for the Cats offense to run. Zane and Chase on the wings and Jordan on the Block, that's the best way for the Cats offense to run. And if Nic can catch the Utes cheating towards Jordan. He needs to attack and make them respect him.

Defense -
Defense will be key against the Utes. Borha and Green can shoot the 3, their both shooting over 40% from the arc, and the Cats 3 point defense has not been great of recent. Size is against the Cats again. Jordan needs to use his big body against the 7'2" Nevill, but he will need help. Hill can not afford to get into Foul Trouble. He's giving up 4 inches and 30 lbs to the Australian big man.

The Press. It has worked amazing in some games getting the Cats back into a game after being down or helping to extend a lead in an uptempo environment. But it can be broken, and can be broken very effectively. The Cats can not rely on the press, it needs to come randomly. Sometimes after makes, sometimes after misses. Sometime they need to delay it and throw it on at half court to catch Utah sleeping. If they get into the habit of running the press after every make, Utah will make them pay with quality passing.

Russ Pennell's Stage -
It's clear that Pennell will not be in Tucson next year. There are teams out there looking for new head coaches and Pennell is on a grand old stage to make an impact. This needs to be his staff's best game. Use the press effectively and control tempo and emotion. Pennell often waits far too long to call a timeout. Sometimes a well called Time Out is all that is needed to give your guys a breather, let them clear their heads. A 4 point deficit can turn into a 12 point deficit in less than 2 minutes if the guys start playing over their heads. They jack up threes to try to get back in it, miss and don't get the long rebound and the opposing team makes an easy layup to take a 6 point lead to an 8 point lead in the span of 10 seconds. Pennell can't be afraid to call the Time Out BEFORE it gets out of hand.

In Game Adjustments. Arizona has blown a lot of first half leads. They have come out slow and confused in many of the second halves of this season. Look at the ASU game for a prime example. Herb Sendek made great adjustments and came back from a small deficit to have the game firmly in hand with 4 minutes left. Pennell hasn't shown a lot of great adjustments. I feel like he goes into the half and tells his players that he loves them, and their playing well, and just need to keep doing what their doing and it's all going to work out. Pennell's nice guy routine is great, and I love him for it, but what the Cats are going to need to make any kind of run is a Red Faced angry Pennell coming in at half and making the Cats play better. That same emotion we've seen at countless terrible Pac-10 official ls needs to come out in the locker room and the team huddle.

Bottom Line
There are a lot of things that the Cats need to do to win. They've proven they can beat top teams. They are by far the scariest 12 seed in the Tournament and have already been picked by Vegas to win the first round. And a Second Round Match-up against Wake Forest (or Cleveland State) is also a very possible win. Arizona very possibly could sneak into the Sweet 16 and face off against Louisville. They need to be the same Arizona team we saw against Washington and UCLA in Tucson. They need to have the never say die attitude that was there against Houston. They need to have the passion and fire to win. This team could make the Sweet 16, it's been said all season. They've got a pair of first rounders and Nic Wise in their starting 5. They've got the talent to win a couple Tournament games. They also have the history and head cases to lose by 12 to Utah in the first round.

And for all of you who say Arizona didn't deserve to get in over St. Mary's, you know as well as I do that St. Mary's didn't deserve it. They play in a weak conference and didn't schedule any tough teams to prove their worth. Gonzaga plays top teams for just that reason. Few knows that just playing the WCC isn't enough. The Gaels had a great season, but this isn't college football, scheduling cupcakes doesn't get you a better post-season.