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Arizona takes on ASU with plenty to prove

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NCAA Basketball: St. John at Arizona Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Allow me to break some news here: Winning is more fun than losing.

When you win, all things seem possible. A team heavily relying on a trio of freshmen looks like it could make a run to the Final Four, while the coach who is leading them appears to have rediscovered his mojo.

Winning also allows for flaws to be concealed, or at the very least ignored.

So, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that as the Arizona Wildcats have lost three out of four games doubt has begun to creep in. Is this team talented enough to beat good teams? Are the players tough enough to win a game in which they don’t play well?

Is Sean Miller the right man to lead the program?

While I believe the answers to those questions are yes, probably and yes, the truth is these last few weeks have done enough to give one pause when trying to predict what the Wildcats are capable of.

Even Miller, 13 games into the season, doesn’t seem to have a clear read on things. In his press conference Thursday the coach talked about how players need to play for the program and not necessarily themselves.

Selfishness was not supposed to be part of the mix this season, and maybe it isn’t. This very well could be a case of young players still finding their way, which itself would not be unreasonable.

Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Zeke Nnaji have all played in just 13 career college games, while of the rest of the rotation players, only Chase Jeter, Dylan Smith and Ira Lee have played significant minutes for Arizona before this season.

In other words, this is still a pretty “new” team.

Does that excuse have validity? No one was talking about that or using it as a crutch when Arizona reeled off nine straight wins to start the season. Yet, for all the great things that were said about the team then and all the lofty predictions that came with them, entering league play the Wildcats are not guaranteed a spot at the top of the conference.

“If you’d ask about a Pac-12 championship, we’re just, we’re not even on the radar,” Miller said. “It’s about us being a good team, a better team and being the most ready we can for a very good team in ASU.”

How good a team ASU is can certainly be debated, as they’ve hung tough with some good teams this season but also lost to St. Mary’s by 50. The Sun Devils did sweep the Cats last season, though, and right now represent the first opportunity for Arizona to show it is capable of tangible improvement.

If Arizona plays close to its best, the game should not be particularly close. Unlike last season, the more talented roster makes its home in Tucson, not Tempe, and it appears health will be on the Wildcats’ side, too, as Stone Gettings will make his return after missing the last five contests.

None of that guarantees a win, especially if the Wildcats haven’t improved since we last saw them.

Miller pointed to defensive rebounding, shot selection and fouling less as areas that demand the most improvement, and he’s not wrong. Arizona has been less-than-good on the glass and has too often sent opponents to the free throw line. Their shooting, especially lately, has also been lackluster.

Fortunately each of these issues would appear to be correctable. Arizona has the size to be good at rebounding, the length and quickness to play defense without fouling and multiple players with the ability to make shots.

Despite their recent struggles, it is important to note that in each of the three losses Arizona fought back from double-digit deficits and gave themselves a chance. While they don’t play well for 40 minutes this is a team that doesn’t quite, which is a trait that will serve them well the rest of the way.

Of course, even better than a team that can make a comeback is one that doesn’t need to. Ideally a couple of weeks between games provided enough time to rest and refocus, improve at the little things that have been problematic.

After hosting Arizona State the Wildcats head to Oregon for dates with the Ducks and Beavers, respectively, before coming home to face Utah and Colorado. Without the luxury of a big non-conference victory, Arizona’s margin for error in Pac-12 play is about as thin as many fans’ patience with the program.

It’s important to remember that this is still the same team that started off the season so well, featuring all the players that had people dreaming of what could be. Losses have a way of clouding the picture, and no doubt Arizona has room to improve.

The important thing is they have the ability to, which means wins are coming.