Fading Wildcats need quick fix to their ailments

TUCSON, Ariz. — The Chicken Littles of the world have come out in the land of the Arizona Wildcats.

Two-game losing streaks tend to do that to inhabitants of Wildcat Nation.

Even when their favorite team is 23-6 and looking for a nice spot in the NCAA tournament in two weeks.

More than a few programs in the country would love Arizona’s problem.

But for Arizona, it’s, well, a problem.

What the Wildcats hope now is that what looked to be a home run of a season doesn’t curve foul.

Right now, it could go either way. Arizona State looms for the season finale at McKale Center on Saturday. Even with a win, the Wildcats will be no better than a No. 4 seed in next week’s Pac-12  Tournament. A loss would be … well, pretty much unmentionable.

Belief in the Wildcats has fallen faster than the team’s ranking in the Associated Press poll. The Cats are No. 18 right now, their lowest spot all season.

But rankings don’t mean much, just as they didn’t when Arizona was climbing the polls in late December. What matters is how they respond to their current predicament, whether they can regain their confidence and resolve.

It was just three months ago when Arizona coach Sean Miller said, “It’s never as good as it seems and never as bad as it looks.” He said that when things were good and he was curious how his team would handle a little adversity.

Well, here it is.

So, what’s happened to the once top-five ranked Wildcats?

If it’s been said once or a thousand times, nothing is ever won in November and December, considered the honeymoon periods in the basketball world. February and March are when true success is measured.

And right now, the success meter is pointing in the wrong direction.

Here are just a few observations on what could be wrong with the No. 18 Wildcats.

This has been a long season — very long. Lest anyone forget, Arizona was preparing for its season in early August, getting ready for its trip to the Bahamas. Paradise never seemed so distant. Previously, there had been European trips in May and June, but never before one in August.

Just last week, Miller was talking about the team practicing for the 80th time. It’s closer to 90 now. That’s a lot of practice. It’s also a lot of walls to hit come mid-February. Arizona looks to be playing tired – mentally and physically. And when teams don’t have success late in the season, it only adds to the mental drain.

Can Arizona recover? No question. There’s only one game this week and the postseason ahead. It might help to recall what happened last year about this time — a season-ending loss to ASU, a Pac-12 championship game loss to Colorado and a loss to Bucknell … in the NIT postseason tournament. Tastes like that don’t go away easily; not when you’re at a school that has plenty of postseason success.

Depth is but a number. When the team first stepped on the court in late October for its annual Red-Blue game, it appeared to be a team loaded with depth and talent at every position.

To borrow a phrase from Miller, it was “fools gold,” in part because coaches, when it’s time to play in more meaningful games, shrink their bench and rely on seven or eight players, tops. Kevin Parrom and Grant Jerrett are the only reserves who get enough time to make much of an impact.

Point Guard U needs to re-credential itself. The position that made the Wildcats famous (psst, on balance, Arizona has had better forwards than guards through the years, but that’s for another discussion) has not been up to its usual standards.

It’s very apparent many fans don’t think highly of Mark Lyons. Heck, some have even pined for the good old days of Mustafa Shakur.

The facts are UA wouldn’t have won 23 games without Lyons. But the Wildcats have had to accept the bad with the good. The bad is he’s not a point guard, but he was given the assignment, out of necessity, of leading this team in the backcourt.

Lyons is a shooting guard who likes to shoot. Some games have been better than others. So to say he’s been inconsistent most of the season is accurate. But what were Arizona’s options? An inconsistent Jordin Mayes or a non-point guard in Nick Johnson? I remember turning to a colleague with Arizona down by one against Florida and seconds ticking away and saying, “these are the times when you need a guy like Lyons.” He proceeded to hit the game-winner, making Dec. 15 a glorious day in Arizona athletics history. It was also the day UA beat Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.

Speaking of that December day when every Wildcats fan had that warm, fuzzy feeling: Well, “fool’s gold” applies again. The Wildcats were in the middle of a great run to begin the season. It lasted three more weeks, and then conference play started. And the regular diet of intense competition and road games proved to be too much.

Oregon is talented enough to play with Arizona, as are UCLA, Colorado and California. It’s the same as in virtually every major conference. Every game is big. Just because you won one doesn’t mean much for the next. And when you have a national ranking and a prestigious reputation, the target on your back is that much greater. The Wildcats took every team’s best punch.

The X-factor has been stifled. It’s been awhile since Johnson, Arizona’s most athletic player has had an exceptional game. If there was a player who could ignite this team it is Johnson, but he hasn’t been the same since he came down with flu-like symptoms in late January. It’s also about the same time he hit the proverbial wall last year as a freshman. The bet is that he’s more equipped this time to snap out of it, but will it be in time for Arizona to recover for the postseason?

Then there are the freshmen, the one-time fearsome foursome that came in as one of the top three  classes from last season. So much for the rankings.

No question Arizona’s group of Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Jerrett and Gabe York will be strong players down the road, but they were ready to do so on a consistent basis this year. It’s always too much in asking a lot from a freshman. Not everyone can be Mike Bibby, a once-every-20-years player.

Typically, freshmen aren’t physically and mentally ready to handle an entire season. Sure there are exceptions, but not in this case. Arizona can consider itself lucky. Had any of them played out of their minds, they would be looking to leave the program for the NBA right now. And that’s not going to happen.

Miller’s tried mixing and matching various combinations but hasn’t found a consistent solution, which leads one to wonder whether the expectations were too great, or the players were overrated. A clear answer will probably emerge next season.

And finally, no shocker, defense. The Wildcats just don’t get after opponents with a dogged approach. They have no stopper. And it seems to not be getting any better. Half the battle is desire, and these Cats haven’t shown it. When you’re a team that’s lost its swagger, it’s hard to come up with the willpower.

If the Cats hope to have an extended postseason and prove the Chicken Littles wrong, it’s on Miller to find a way to get his players motivated to play better defense. Nothing he’s tried so far has worked.