It would be easy to panic.
Actually, as Arizona fans it would almost be natural.
The men’s basketball team got off to a torrid start this season, and with each blowout victory raised expectations just a little bit higher. Soon enough the Wildcats were near the top of the top 10 and thoughts were no longer on just making the NCAA Tournament, but winning the whole damn thing.
Then came that ill-fated (and belated) trip to Pauley Pavilion. Andwhile the next game was not a win, it was hardly the expected romp over a less-than-average ASU team.
What’s left is, as the Wildcats prepare for a home rematch with the Bruins, a team that some are starting to doubt. At 17-2 (7-1 in Pac-12) the Wildcats still find themselves in the AP top 10, where they are 7th, while residing in the top five of KenPom ratings.
If they’re only as good as their last game then the Wildcats are certainly not great, but there is a large enough body of work up to this point to where one can confidently proclaim these last couple weeks to be little more than a slump, a speed bump, the kind of which is almost bound to happen over the course of a long season.
Against UCLA it likely didn’t help that Arizona was playing its third road game in six nights, with the wonky schedule doing their legs and energy no favors. There appeared to be some carryover against the Sun Devils, which is why afterwards head coach Tommy Lloyd was understandably clear on what was coming up next for his team.
Rest. He said his team needed to rest in order to be ready to “make that next push.”
That next push will feature the aforementioned home tilt with UCLA, which will be followed by a date with USC before hitting the road to play Arizona State, Washington State and Washington over another 6-day span.
There are more games after those, of course, with the ones furthest out and not yet on the schedule being arguably the most important. The fact that we know those games will occur makes every one that precedes them more stressful.
Every game will factor into tournament seeding; every shot attempt, each defensive possession will determine what kind of belief there is in the team when the tournament starts.
It’s been a while since Arizona had a season like this, one that carries equal parts excitement and stress each time the Cats take the floor. It’s the kind of season fans yearned for and Lloyd signed up for, additional stress and all.
If there is an advantage to having a contending team like this one, say, compared to some of the more recent iterations filled with veteran players and 5-star freshmen, is that there is still much for this squad to prove.
For instance, only Oumar Ballo and Justin Kier have any kind of postseason experience, with the former’s nine minutes accounting for the entirety of the roster’s NCAA Tournament playing time.
Was that an issue last week against tournament-tested UCLA? Perhaps, though Arizona fared pretty well earlier in the season against quality opponents Michigan and Illinois, while competing hard on the road against a talented Tennessee team.
There are also reasonable questions to be had about Kerr Kriisa, who has struggled with his shot, as well as Dalen Terry and Benn Mathurin, whose shooting strokes have also betrayed them of late. You can add the ankle injury suffered by Azuolas Tubelis to the mix, too, as there is no timetable for when he will be healthy and resemble the force he was prior to getting rolled up on.
The overarching question is around Lloyd’s offense, and whether or not opponents have figured it out to a degree that will need to be countered. Making open shots would quiet that narrative, but then that goes back to some of the issues listed above.
At any rate, since most of the country is asleep when the Wildcats play, the national narrative is still one of Arizona being every bit the contender. They see the overall record, the rankings and highlights and assume the team is fine.
Meanwhile, those who have watched every game this season, enjoying the highs but suffering through the lows, see something different. They see a team that was surprisingly good — maybe even great — and now might be coming back to Earth.
Even if Arizona ran the table from now and through the Pac-12 Tournament, the latter group would still have doubts. And if not doubts, fear that disappointment is lurking ahead.
Is that fair? Not really. Many a coach has talked about making sure to enjoy the journey, regardless of the destination, but it’s easier said than done.
When you’re a fan of Arizona, you expect the team to contend. And when you have a team that can contend, you worry it will fall short.
Unfortunately a long season allows for all those concerns to creep in, warranted or not.