Through 16 games this season, Arizona boasts a record of 14-2, with a 3-2 mark in the Pac-12.
At this point in the schedule last season the Cats were 15-1 with a 5-0 conference record.
So yeah, last year was better, at least by a little bit.
Anyone who has watched the Cats this year knows they are different than last year’s team. This year’s squads scores more per game while allowing more. The way it goes about scoring baskets differs in that there are fewer high-flying dunks, and though the death runs have happened they seem less emphatic.
Now, perception matters much less than results, and for the most part Arizona’s have been pretty dang good. They’ve climbed in the rankings and been called a championship contender for a reason.
Yet, the Cats have especially recently struggled to play at a consistently high level.
The Washington State loss was bad, but it was really the culmination of a stretch that had Arizona oftentimes start off slow before turning things on and pulling away at the end. The ability to flip the proverbial switch is a good thing, but even better is not needing to.
Even with the loss, Arizona is most definitely a top-10 team and still a contender to cut down the nets in a few months. Their size is tough to match up with and there are plenty of players on the perimeter and wing who can get hot and light up the scoreboard.
What the Wildcats don’t have, unfortunately, is a true superstar. Someone who the ball can be given to with the expectation that not only will they get a good shot off, but probably make it.
You know, a Bennedict Mathurin type of player.
The lack of a Benn means the Wildcats’ margin for error is much slimmer than a year ago.
“No one’s guaranteed victory or success,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said after the loss to Washington State. “We got to go out and fight for who we want to be every single game.
“You got to fight for that identity, and there is obviously growing pains over the course of a season, and seasons are far from perfect when you really start dissecting. I’m looking forward to getting home tonight and getting to work at fixing some things and getting better.”
That Arizona is still discovering who it is actually makes a lot of sense. Its top two scorers, Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo, are filling new roles, and despite their excellence are not exactly the type of players who can get theirs without some help.
Of the players who could, Kerr Kriisa has been inconsistent, Pelle Larsson has been a bit disappointing and Courtney Ramey has really struggled of late.
Knowing all that, if Arizona is in desperate need of a bucket, who gets the ball? Who takes the shot? Not knowing the answer to that isn’t an issue; not having an answer could be.
Until someone steps up as the guy for Arizona, they will have to do things by committee. This can work, as opponents have to gameplan for every single player on the court at all times. If you focus too much on one player, another can make you pay.
This is how Lloyd’s offense is supposed to function, and when Arizona is playing well it’s exactly what happens. The problem is to excel in such an offense means bringing a level of focus and execution to every minute of every game.
Arizona can’t afford lazy fakes or passes, and it cannot panic into taking forced shots.
Making shots of any kind would help.
“It’s not confidence,” Tubelis said. “We had a bad day and couldn’t make shots.”
Arizona has not shown it has enough consistent shot makers, and when pretty much everyone is off they are a much easier team to defend. There have been and will be games where the threes fall and from there everything will open up and they’ll look great.
But when the shots aren’t falling, someone needs to step up and take control. You know, to stop a scoring drought or to restore some order when the opponent is making a run.
The Wildcats had that last season. They’ve had it in the past. In fact, every great Arizona team has had at least one player who you felt like would come up big when the team needed him most.
Last year’s did in Mathurin.
“I wouldn’t panic. I think everybody (is) in clouds right now from last year, that that’s how it should be,” Kriisa said Saturday afternoon. “Of course, our standards are high. We’re trying to win every game.
“Today was like that. We’re going to take full responsibility for to the shooting percentages. We missed 11 free throws, that’s a lot of free throws. That’s 100 percent on the players.”
It is on the players. The coaches’ job is to put players in position to succeed, and it is clear Arizona’s do exactly that. But unlike previous Wildcats teams, this one appears to lack the kind of talent that can put the team on its back and carry it to victory.
That doesn’t mean they’re doomed. Their excellent record is no mirage, as they are very talented and a matchup nightmare for most opponents.
But if Arizona is going to reach the heights its record indicates and fanbase desires, there are basically two options:
- Develop a go-to option who can be relied on when games get tough
- Mature and find a consistent level of focus and effort
The former is by far the ideal and more preferred choice. The latter is more difficult, but certainly doable. Arizona wouldn’t have its current record if it couldn’t do this, but the Cats won’t reach their ultimate goal if they don’t get back to doing so.