Arizona basketball: On hope and expectation for the Wildcats

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Hansen's column this week said that this version of Arizona basketball would fall to Wildcat teams of past, but why does it matter?

Expectation creates hope. But unlike hope, expectation is created by things often unrelated -- say, the past. Hope is a more calculated and logical feeling, partially based on expectation but also touched by tangible knowledge and observation. At least, it should be for fans.

The Arizona Wildcats aren't expected to get swept in Los Angeles by the UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans, not with the Pac-12 title on the line. They aren't expected to look incompetent on offense -- not at Point Guard U -- nor soft on defense. They aren't supposed to be anything they've been this season, really.

They're expected to do more, and a preseason top-15 ranking provided evidence of that. Yet here they are, 23-6 overall but ranked No. 18 and quite possibly only able to finish fourth in the conference by the end of the regular season. It might appear the Wildcats are set for a failed postseason run.

Greg Hansen's column in the Arizona Daily Star this week pointed out a reality. He said that most every one of Lute Olson's teams from 1988-2006 would thump this team built by Sean Miller:

For almost three decades, basketball fans in this community watched as elite-level basketball teams were assembled and put on display at McKale Center. Every one of those teams, from 1988-2006, had what this team lacks: go-to shooters, lock-down defenders, game-changing big men, precision-passing point guards and NBA-ready draft picks.

And reliable help off the bench.

Each one of those teams, 1988-2006, would thump the 2013 Wildcats in a best-of-three series. Most of them would be sweeps.

I'm not here to say that the main idea isn't true. I agree. I'm just going to say it doesn't matter. The expectation, here, is based on the past. With respect to history majors, it's irrelevant, especially when we're talking the Lute Olson days.

Comparing this team to the past ignores the fact that the level of college basketball has changed. Arguably, the NBA age limit put into place has done little to change the college game. Especially this season, when a recruiting class top-10 included Wildcats Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett, the talent is diluted.

Ever find yourself complaining about a college game needing five overtimes to get one team or the other into triple digits? Welcome to the present.

The college game is slow, scrappy and often ugly. No team this season is stacked with NBA draft picks. Even Indiana, with lottery picks like Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, are vulnerable to lose and underwhelming. Still, they're one of the favorites to win the championship.

Hansen writes about the 80-point per game threshold being something the Wildcats regularly crossed. But scoring in the NCAA has dropped. This year, only three NCAA teams are averaging more than 80 points per game. In 2001-03, Arizona was one of 20 teams that scored 80 or more in that year's regular season.

As they say, great offense always beats great defense. Because of the talent deficit, the defense often wins out.

So here is Arizona, still ranked in the top-25 because, well, they're with everyone else.

What is hope?

Back to hope. Hope is based on what we know, the skill sets of basketball players involved.

Take a look at an easy and current example in Los Angeles. The NBA's Lakers are a collection of talent, mangled together in a way never seen before and at the risk of failing because of bad luck, injuries and a coach working with those pieces. But hope remains because of that talent. It's not an issue of the individual anymore, but whether a team can find itself in time.

Hansen points out what Arizona lacks, but the Wildcats lack these things not because of what Miller hasn't gotten in talent. Whatever a "go-to shooter" is, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons have all hit big shots throughout their careers and even this season. They just haven't done it of late. If a "go-to" shooter is a go-to scorer, then Lyons would probably be the player who has shown he can create his own opportunities when need be.

How about lock-down defenders? Nick Johnson certainly shouldn't be missed here. His confidence has appeared to have taken a hit, but it's not like he's incapable.

Meanwhile, the freshmen big men have shown their abilities to become game-changing interior players. Youth is holding them back, but there have been flashes. And to say any team has NBA-ready draft picks is silly considering those Arizona teams of the past would have several players who, in this era of college basketball, could go in the top-five picks in this abysmal draft upcoming.

I will concede the point guard issues.

Hope is there because Arizona's roster has the things that win postseason games. No, they haven't shown it lately, and there's no guarantee it'll pop up. But if there's one thing to learn about Miller, it's that his mantra of building a player's program doesn't take hold until the postseason.

The reins are loosened, the players are set free, and the lessons taught throughout the regular season will either take hold in a controlled aggression or won't.

Hope is there because Miller's teams have done this before. This isn't the Olson era anymore.

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