The Arizona Wildcats are off to the best start in program history and have been ranked No. 1 in the country for eight weeks in a row. The Wildcats (21-0, 8-0 Pac-12) have also set the school record for longest winning streak at 21 games.
The Wildcats face a suddenly-struggling Cal Golden Bears team Saturday night at Haas Pavilion at 10:30 p.m. ET. The Bears (14-7, 5-3 Pac-12) started the season on fire winning their first five conference games including a win over then-No. 17 Oregon. California has since fallen on hard times losing their past three.
Arizona holds a 55-29 advantage over Cal and has won three of the past four meetings, including a triple-overtime thriller in Berkeley in 2011. Despite the Wildcats’ recent success against Cal, is is that fourth game that sticks in Arizona’s craw. Arizona has won 17 straight games at home, with their last loss being to Cal on February 10 of last year.
Can the Wildcats exact revenge on the Bears for that loss? Can they avoid the mounting pressure to maintain perfection? Click through for more burning questions about the remainder of the Wildcats’ season.
What Is the Reason for the Slow Starts?
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Arizona hosted Utah on January 26 and came out listless. Within 90 seconds, they were already down seven points, after 7:30 had elapsed in the first half, the Wildcats still had only one field goal and trailed 12-2. They had missed ten consecutive shots including two free throws and two three-point attempts during that span.
Three days later at Stanford, the Wildcats were reliving a bad case of deja vu, scoring only one field goal in the first 7:30 of the game. Stanford kept it close by taking a 31-30 halftime lead and led by as many as seven points in the second half before succumbing to the nation’s top team.
“Half of the game we didn’t know what type of defense they were in so it was definitely something we had to adjust to,” head coach Sean Miller said following the Utah game. “But we adjusted to it and started hitting shots.”
The true measure of a team is not measured by how well they start, but how well they finish. The Wildcats have the heart of a champion by showing their closing ability when necessary. Not to speak ill of Utah or Stanford, but if Arizona continues the one-field-goal-in-seven-minutes trend, they can expect an early ouster from the NCAA Tournament.
Do They Realize That Free Throws Are Actually Free?
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The Wildcats are bad at the free throw line—horrendous, to be more precise. Their .662 percentage ranks 10th in the Pac-12 while they have taken the fifth most attempts.
Aaron Gordon is a disaster at the charity stripe hitting only 44-of-98 for 44.9 percent and fellow newcomers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell aren’t faring much better at 61 and 64.3 percent from the line.
Veteran players Kaleb Tarczewski, Nick Johnson and Brandon Ashley lead the team but barely register on the Pac-12 stat line with Tarczewski at No. 15 and Johnson and Ashley at 18 and 21 respectively.
In close games this year, the Wildcats have shot alarmingly low against UNLV (50 percent), Colorado (57 percent), Utah (60 percent) and Stanford (62 percent.)
Free throws are a gift but they are also used as a defensive strategy when the opponent knows of the weakness. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson especially, need to be in the gym before and after practice working on their free throws.
Granted, no NBA General Manager will pass on these electric players due to their limited free throw skills, but in an effort to be all-around players, they need to at least start shooting 75 percent.
Will They Handle the Mounting Pressure of a Perfect Season?
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If the past two games have shown us anything, it has been that the Wildcats may be feeling the pressure of being undefeated. They have already set records for best season start and longest win streaks in program history, do they need to continue the streak to keep the fan base satisfied?
The answer is a resounding no.
Although it would be quite the feather in the cap for Sean Miller’s team to be the eighth team in NCAA history to go undefeated and the first in nearly four decades. However, a loss might even be considered a good thing so that the Wildcats can focus on the games ahead instead of maintaining the streak.
Will Sean Miller Be Lured Away by North Carolina?
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Arizona struggled after the abrupt retirement of long-time head coach Lute Olson. The rocky two-year stretch from 2007-2009 saw much controversy and two head coaches in Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell.
After “only” advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, Athletics Director Jim Livengood hired Xavier head coach Sean Miller following the 2009 sesaon. Miller’s first year was a tumultuous one, going 16-15 and 10-8 in the Pac-12.
Miller’s team missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years and people were questioning the hire. The questions are no longer “Is Miller good enough for Arizona?” but “Is Miller too good for Arizona?”
With North Carolina’s men’s basketball program struggling, there are many rumors floating around about Roy Williams’ possible ouster. The Tar Heels (14-7, 4-4 ACC) began conference play with three straight losses and losers of four of their first five.
The University of North Carolina is one of the most storied basketball schools in the country and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they had their feelers out and were looking to sway Miller back to North Carolina where he spent five years as an assistant for the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
How Many Players Will Declare for the NBA Draft?
The only sure answer to this question is to look at which players have no remaining eligibility. With only one senior on the team, Jordin Mayes is your answer.
The other players are question marks, including all five starters.
The most draft-ready players are junior Nick Johnson and sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. Point guard T.J. McConnell and super frosh Aaron Gordon could declare as well.
Declaring for the NBA is one thing, playing is yet another. All you have to do is look at last year’s players that entered the NBA Draft, Solomon Hill and Grant Jerrett.
Hill was drafted in the first round, 23rd overall by the Indiana Pacers and has already been sent down to the D-League Fort Wayne Ants. He is back with Indiana but has only played in one game for a total of six minutes.
Jerrett was drafted 40th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers and then had his rights traded to Oklahoma City. Jerrett was later drafted No. 1 in the NBADL Draft by the Tulsa 66’ers who lost 17 of their first 20 games.
The NBA is tough to break into.
With 351 colleges and universities, not to mention international players, filtering into 30 teams with 15 players each, just making a roster is defying astronomical odds. The NBA D-League adds some hope with 17 additional teams with 12 roster spots.
Arizona’s starting five is phenomenal at the NCAA level, as is evidenced by their 21-0 record, but they all need to decide on what’s more important, playing the game they love at the college level or risking it all on the chance of fulfilling their dreams, knowing that the odds are heavily stacked against them.