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Once the best in the West, Arizona basketball is now painfully average

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 18 Arizona at UCLA Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats dropped another game to UCLA on Thursday, what has become the norm in what used to be one of the most heated rivalries in college basketball.

Arizona has lost five straight against the Bruins, its last win coming at the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament when superhuman Deandre Ayton pummeled them for 32 points and 14 rebounds. The Wildcats don’t have that kind of talent, or size, anymore.

When 7-footer Christian Koloko exited Thursday’s game after picking up his third foul in five minutes, the Bruins were bigger and better at every position. After falling behind by eight early in the first half, UCLA outscored Arizona 70-48 to cruise to a 74-60 win despite missing its best player.

After the game, Sean Miller stated the obvious.

“We have a tough time matching up with them, we really do,” the UA coach said. “Sometimes the O is much bigger, more defined than the X.”

The loss dropped Arizona to 8-8 in the Pac-12 this season and 26-26 in the conference since the end of the 2017-18 season, the year Miller and the Wildcats were embroiled in the FBI investigation and saw one of their typical star-studded recruiting classes fall apart overnight.

They have not recruited the same since, adding two just five-star prospects—Josh Green and Nico Mannion—over the last four recruiting cycles. Both already had Arizona ties and one could argue that landing them was more the product of geography and their close friendship than their actual belief in the program.

Miller says he has changed his recruiting strategy, now prioritizing four-star recruits who will stay in school for multiple years (or at least that’s the hope) instead of blue chippers who are likely to leave for the NBA after one season.

He is banking on that continuity bringing better results. The Wildcats have started 21 different players over the last three years. Next season they could return their entire starting five.

“That will really be to our advantage,” Miller said. “Trust me.”

Would you blame Arizona fans if they don’t?

It wasn’t that long ago when the Wildcats were the best in the West. They won four Pac-12 championships and made two Elite Eights from 2014 to 2018.

Now they have lost five straight games to UCLA and six straight to Oregon. If they lose to first-place USC on Saturday, it would be their third straight time falling to the Trojans, too.

I would mention Gonzaga, but Arizona isn’t even in the same stratosphere as the Zags, who are the best team in college basketball and perhaps the program that’s benefitted the most from Arizona’s demise.

The Wildcats beat the Bulldogs in McKale in 2014-15, then again in Spokane in 2015-16. If those teams played now, Gonzaga would be favored by double figures.

Nationally, the Wildcats are irrelevant too. They have not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2016-17. They have not even played in an NCAA Tournament game since 2017-18, when they squandered Ayton’s generational talent against 13th-seeded Buffalo.

This is the program that was a big part of March Madness every year from 1985 to 2009 and every year but one from 2011 to 2018. Talk about an identity crisis.

In Miller’s three Elite Eight seasons, the Wildcats were a tough-minded defensive team that would overwhelm you with their athleticism, outwork you on the boards and outscore you with their sheer talent. Now they lack a star scorer, are undersized and historically bad on defense.

Another porous effort against the Bruins dropped the Wildcats to 89th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, the worst mark since Miller’s first season at the helm, which everyone knew was going to be a rebuilding year. They managed to go 10-8 in the Pac-10 anyway.

This Arizona team will have to win out to finish with a better conference winning percentage. And it’s not like the Pac-12 is the world-beating league it used to be or this is an outlier season. Arizona is a painfully average program now and Miller admitted as much.

“You look at where we’re at right now, 8-8 with three (games) to go, and it’s kind of where we’ve been,” he said. “We have to fix that.”

Miller is about to enter the final year of his contract and coaches don’t typically work on expiring deals. That means there is no time to take the middle ground.

You either believe he’s the one who can develop these young players or you don’t.

Do you? Does Arizona? We’re about to find out.