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For Arizona basketball, ceiling is irrelevant if it can’t get off the floor

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Oregon State Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years no matter how good, average or even bad the Arizona Wildcats were, one thing always seemed to be certain: They would get their opponents’ best.

Their passing would be purposeful and crisp, they would be extra aggressive on the boards, their defense would be focused and their shooting would be better than normal.

Much of that could be attributed to Arizona playing poorly, and no doubt they have not always brought their best all game, every game.

But take the recent Oregon road trip, for example. Against Arizona, Oregon and Oregon State combined to make a blistering 35 of 39 free throw attempts.

Their numbers from the line against Arizona’s travel partner, Arizona State? Well, the Ducks and Beavers made 36 of 54 attempts.

Fifteen more attempts than against the Wildcats, only one more make. Sean Miller’s team has plenty of problems, and you can probably add free throw defense to the list.

The point is the Wildcats have a target on its front and backs every time it takes the court. Ranked or not, it comes with being one of the conference’s premier programs. That’s especially true when the team seems vulnerable, as it does now, because you can have schools and players who are used to getting bludgeoned by the Red and Blue sensing a great opportunity to exact some revenge.

That means every game, no matter the opponent, Arizona needs to come out ready to play.

Lately, they have not.

The loss to Baylor was understandable, as was falling to Gonzaga. Both are great teams, and Arizona had a chance in each game.

The defeat to St. John’s was puzzling, but that angst may have been washed away with the demolition of ASU.

The Oregon road trip offered a chance for the Wildcats to start to prove themselves, and you could make a strong case that they were the better team Thursday night in Eugene. Arizona let that one slip away, which was upsetting but hardly discouraging.

Then game Oregon State, a game in which the Wildcats did not seem ready to play at the start and then certainly were in no frame of mind to finish.

Miller said his team was “outclassed” by the Beavers, which was evident to anyone who watched the game and disturbing for, well, anyone who watched the game.

Arizona lost by 17 points Sunday; their previous four losses were by a combined 13 points.

Outclassed, indeed. By the Oregon State Beavers. The Beavers, by the way, had not beaten Arizona since 2015.

Was this a case of a young team not responding well to a tough loss in Eugene, perhaps letting the tough finish linger into Sunday night? Did they for some reason think they could walk into Gill Coliseum and win because they showed up?

Are they simply not as good as the Beavers?

Of the first two questions, you’d like to think a team Miller once touted as being made up of winners would not have that issue, especially now that the season has reached January and even more so because the Wildcats have yet to win a true road game.

As for the third? I’d like to say no, but I won’t argue with anyone who disagrees nor will I fight you if you question the Wildcats’ long-term chances right now.

Arizona’s 10-0 start seems like a decade ago, and their 1-5 mark since does little to inspire confidence. They have slipped up in every chance at a signature win, and now fell flat on their faces with a chance at a character-defining victory.

If you want to be optimistic about the Cats, who are now 11-5 and no longer ranked, the squad that won the national championship more than 20 years ago also started slowly, losing nine games before going on that magical NCAA run. Though, this year’s team does not have a Miles Simon waiting to make a return or, really, any legitimate excuse for struggling like it has.

Since the Wildcats cannot play ASU every game this season, they will have to figure things out — and fast. Utah and Colorado come to Tucson this week and nothing less than a home sweep will be sufficient. Arizona has lost the luxury of quality losses or moral victories because it has lost games that offered neither.

The season is not over, especially as the Wildcats sit at a very respectable 18th in both NET and KenPom. There will be more opportunities for good wins, as Colorado will be ranked when it enters the McKale Center Saturday and there is still a home date with Oregon and the Pac-12 Tournament.

Bill Walton may have been uncharacteristically hyperbolic Thursday when he said at their peak Arizona is the best team in the country, but he is right in pointing out the Wildcats have a considerably high ceiling.

If only they could consistently get off the floor.