Cats don't foresee repeat of last year's meltdown
December 28, 2007
When Arizona beat Memphis 79-71 last December at McKale Center, the Wildcats were about to step off a cliff.
They had no reason to see it coming.
Arizona was 9-1 and on top of the RPI rankings. It had a supposedly surefire NBA first-rounder in Marcus Williams and a point guard, Mustafa Shakur, playing so well that UA coach Lute Olson compared him favorably to anybody in the country at his position.
Then Arizona lost 10 games after New Year's. Shakur's game slipped, and he did not get drafted. Williams went only in the second round, getting shipped to the D-League before his recall to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.
Now, the Wildcats head into a Saturday night game at Memphis at 9-2 and again atop the RPI rankings. They have two projected NBA first-rounders in Chase Budinger and Jerryd Bayless and a number of others who may get drafted.
Is this different?
Senior guard Jawann McClellan is convinced it is, and not just because of what the Wildcats are doing on the floor. The drop-off "was because people were looking at the Internet all the time thinking about themselves and what their future was," McClellan said. "I don't think one player on this team is worried about the future. We're all about winning right now. KO (interim head coach Kevin O'Neill) has brought that mentality, and truth be told, everything's going to take care of itself anyway."
Over the past three seasons, McClellan and UA's other seniors have seen it all. In 2004-05, the Wildcats were arguably peaking before their stunning collapse against Illinois in the Elite Eight. In 2005-06, they struggled all season with off-court issues brought on by Chris Rodgers and Hassan Adams. Last season, they fell in the tank at Pullman, Wash, of all places, and never recovered.
"My freshman year we had a good recruiting class and two preseason (Wooden Award) all-Americans" in Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, McClellan said. "My sophomore year, we were a very young team and had a lack of leadership. A lot of things were happening off the court. Last year we were injury prone. My knee had problems and a lot of people didn't buy into the system."
The contrast just between last season and this one alone has been enough to catch the attention of sophomore guard Nic Wise.
"We're much more close-knit than last year," Wise said. "We're not selfish. We have more cohesiveness than last year."
On the court, meanwhile, O'Neill has also brought changes that the Wildcats cite for gradual improvement every week.
Offensively, they are running more plays and passing the ball more often. Defensively, they have scrapped the zone defense they ran occasionally last year and held opponents to 41.2 percent field goal shooting — including 34 percent or lower marks in the past three games.
Those kinds of changes are building a stronger foundation this season, several Wildcats said. If Budinger and Bayless struggle with shooting, the Wildcats can at least force the other team to struggle, too.
"It's definitely a different feeling just because we're a defensive team, and we're going to be more consistent," Budinger said. "Last year we were pretty much an offensive team. That's where the inconsistency can take effect. This year, the whole focus is on defense. I feel we're getting better each practice, and we should just keep on going up the hill."
Besides, McClellan said, it is not as if they have reached the top of any hills at this point. Even at 9-2, the Wildcats have suffered enough slow starts, turnovers and streaky shooting to know they are not perfect.
At the same time, the Wildcats do not appear to have any of the past precursors of trouble. McClellan is academically sound, healthy and playing better than ever, after struggling for two years with injuries and ineligibility. Bret Brielmaier's separated shoulder and Fendi Onobun's shin injury have been the closest things the Wildcats have had to an injury crisis.
In addition, there have been no major off-court issues among players, such as Adams' December 2005 disorderly conduct arrest or Chris Rodgers' dismissal-turned-suspension later that season. Just a bunch of guys who, several Wildcats say, reside firmly on the same page.
"Last year, we peaked at 12-1," senior guard Daniel Dillon said, referring to UA's record before a Jan. 6 loss at Washington State. "This year, we're definitely not at our peak yet."