Team Personality: Unfulfilled, but unquestionable talent. It’s a bit of a paradox describing the Wildcats, but they’re simply one of the hardest teams in the country to figure out. There are likely four NBA draft picks in Arizona’s starting lineup (Mustafa Shakur, Marcus Williams, Ivan Radenovic, Chase Budinger), but they’ve only gelled together in selected games this season.
Arizona was a preseason Top 10 team (in the polls) and a trendy sleeper to reach the Final Four. The ‘Cats blitzed through the non-conference portion of their schedule, losing only at Virginia on opening day, and were the #2 RPI team behind UCLA when the calendar turned to 2007.
The Bruins have stayed right there, but the Pac-10 season has bordered on disaster for Lute Olson’s team, as a 6 th-place finish is the best they can do.
Focus is a serious issue with this team, but if they can unite both in spirit and in execution, Arizona could still do some damage in the NCAA Tournament because few teams can match up with their explosiveness and ability to get out in transition.
Biggest Game: At Oregon, February 10. At the time, Arizona hadn’t beaten a Tournament team in the New Year. A recent home blowout of Washington had provided some reason for hope, but the recent home blowout BY North Carolina still lingered in fans’ and pundits’ minds.
Arizona trailed by double-digits well into the second half, but an inspired comeback led by Chase Budinger delivered a rare win at MacArthur Court, something that Pac-10 leaders UCLA and Washington State were unable to accomplish.
Has to Be on the Floor: Marcus Williams. Williams is probably Arizona’s best defender, and his ability to create his own shot is uncanny, whether on a drive, fadeaway jumper, or a rise-and-fire. Most scouts feel that Williams has the best NBA potential on the team.
Crunchtime Crutch: Quick shots. Arizona’s halfcourt offense isn’t a thing of beauty, but when the clock ticks below 4:00, the Wildcats’ reliance on isolation jumpers becomes even more apparent. Working the ball inside to Radenovic, or getting ball movement involving Marcus Williams coming off a screen BEFORE an outside shot by Shakur or Budinger tends to be more effective.
Last Shot: Chase Budinger. Jawann McClellan has been one of the more disappointing players in the Pac-10 this season, and certainly would have been the favorite for this position before the season began.
But Budinger has lived up to his preseason hype particularly in conference play. Chase has an incredibly smooth release and his 6’7” frame allows him to shoot right over smaller guards who tend to be assigned to him.
Straw That Stirs the Drink: Jordan Hill. The 6’9” freshman has emerged from Lute Olson’s bench with the decision not to try to bring Kirk Walters back from injury this year.
Hill is Arizona’s most tenacious rebounder (as Radenovic prefers to play more on the outside) and is the clear x-factor in terms of energy. His exuberance does occasionally lead to foul trouble, but Hill has been the one player on Arizona who has exceeded expectations this year.
Impact Newcomer: Chase Budinger. Without question, Chase is having an All-Pac-10 Freshman season, and has been the team’s most reliable scorer down the stretch.
Potential Pitfall: Defense, defense, defense. Arizona teams have never been known for terrific D, but because this team isn’t quite as skilled as previous editions have been on offense, it’s becoming a more glaring problem for this team.
We saw it in full evidence against North Carolina. The Tar Heels are a more talented mirror image of Arizona, and simply picked the Wildcats apart on their own end of the floor.
If they can avoid an skilled perimeter team in the NCAA Tournament, the defense may not be critical to Arizona’s success, but Arizona will be hard-pressed to become that Final Four sleeper unless its on-the-ball intensity picks up.
How to reach the Sweet 16 : Come together, right now. Though the level of chemistry on this team is vastly improved over last year, one gets the sense that it’s not where it could be. Much of this has to do with the blown defensive assignments and shots without passes I alluded to earlier in the capsule.
Patience in the halfcourt offense and cracking down on D will go a long way for Arizona. This team still has the scorers and plays a style that’s conducive to jump on teams early in the NCAA Tournament. But against higher seeds in the later rounds, Arizona simply must play well in halfcourt sets on BOTH ends of the floor.