B y T o m D a n e h y
A FEW QUESTIONS that come to mind with the start of basketball season:
Q. Why is everybody so down on the Wildcat basketball team this year?
A. I call it the Skippy Factor, so named for my friend who has an irrational hatred of Arizona sports teams. Back when the Cats went 10-2 in football and beat the crap out of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, poor Skippy developed skin rashes and began stuttering. Conversely, this year when they dipped below .500, he walked around that whole week with a shit-eating grin. 'Course, they won their next two on the road and it was back in the doldrums for him.
He especially delights in dogging the basketball team. The two years they made it to the Final Four, he pointed out they didn't go all the way. When they reached the round of eight, he said they didn't make the Final Four. And so on. Then there are the disheartening losses in the first round, in which he has basically made his home.
The general consensus is that Arizona will have a down year (for them), meaning, simply, they aren't odds-on favorites for the Pac-10 title. Nothing more. Don't look for them to tumble far, despite Skippy's fervent prayers toward that end.
Q. But a lot of prognosticators have the Cats in the middle of the Pac pack. What's up with that?
A. Several of the preseason magazines have them finishing fourth or lower in the league, behind at least UCLA, Cal and Stanford. Personally, I don't see it.
UCLA will be strong, but not dominating like they were last year. The loss of Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidek will bring them back to earth. Stanford returns all five starters from last year, but this is Stanford, after all! Just try saying "Pac-10 men's basketball champion Stanford." It doesn't work.
Then there's Cal. Coach Todd Bozeman brought in a lot of talented players and forged a nifty little us-against-the-world mentality, but things are starting to fray around the edges. One starter transferred to Cal-Riverside!!! Another (Tremaine Fowlkes) is in deep trouble with the NCAA. Another plays football for Cal, so he'll be bummed out for a long time, and yet another is the subject of a different NCAA probe. Plus Bozeman is probably the most disliked coach in the conference. Watch for this squad to unravel.
The Northwest schools should be OK and USC won't stink. ASU will be down from last year. All in all, the league should be pretty well-balanced.
Q. So doesn't that mean the Cats could finish in the middle of the Pac?
A. Yeah, but in a balanced league, the edge goes to experience. The Cats are experienced winners; most of the rest are experienced losers. You have to go with the winners until they aren't winners anymore.
Arizona still has the mystique, the significant home-court advantage, some good ballplayers and the best coach in the league. They may not win the championship, but no way they're finishing fourth.
Q. What will it take for the Cats to make a run at the title?
A. Lots of things will have to fall in place. Ben Davis will have to put last year behind him and have a big year on the boards. Joseph Blair will have to stay focused on the NBA money at the end of the rainbow and play as big as he is. Big scoring, lots of rebounds, blocked shots, clutch free throws. It's asking a lot, but everyone in the program is convinced he's capable of doing it.
Joe MacLean will have to shoot well. He's a good shooter, but you never would have known by watching him last year. He was awful. He's got to get his confidence back and not think so damn much. Reggie Geary will have to make the transition to point guard and find a shot from beyond two feet. Miles Simon will have to come back from last year's hand injury. Michael Dickerson will have to expand on his 25-point outburst in the ASU game last year.
This is a lot to ask, but certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.
Q. Will UCLA repeat as NCAA champs?
A. No way. Bet against any team repeating. There are just too many things that could go wrong. Heck, last year Arkansas had all five starters back from the previous year's championship team and they didn't even repeat. In fact, it took four consecutive miracle finishes for them even to return to the Final Four.
Q. Who's favored then?
A. Nobody. This should be the most wide-open tournament in years. There are lots of good teams--Kansas, Kentucky, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, UCLA--but no real favorite. That's what makes the NCAA Tournament the best sports event of the year.
Q. Any other good news?
A. Yeah, the Big 10 will absolutely reek this year. Could be the worst league in the country. All of last year's top players are gone from a league that went a dismal 1-5 in the NCAAs last year.
Michigan is supposed to have another killer recruiting class, but then again their last killer class accounted for a grand total of zero conference titles, zero national titles and just-above-zero combined grade-point average.
Q. Is Ron Asta still the most obnoxious fan at McKale Center?
A. Yes, but obnoxious is not all bad, especially when contrasted with the clap-on-command herd of red sweaters collectively known as Robo-Crowd.
Asta sits down in the front row, latches on to some poor (usually white) schlub on the opposing team, then rides him mercilessly. It's kinda cruel, but it breaks the monotony.
Q. So what's your prediction for the season?
A. Another 20-win season, 12-6 in the Pac-10 (good for second in the conference), a four or five seed in the tournament and a victory in the first round! I hate to stick my neck out like that, but hey, it's only November. Who'll remember, besides Skippy?
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