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Arizona Preview: Wildcats Are On Their Losing Streak

February 20, 2019

A lot can happen in six weeks. Just ask Arizona basketball coach Sean Milller.

After routing Cal 87-65 in Berkeley on Jan. 12, the Wildcats looked ready to challenge for their usual spot at the top of the Pac. 12 standings.

Despite having lost its entire starting five from last season, Arizona was 13-4 overall and 4-0 in conference play. But things have pretty much gone to pot since then for the Wildcats. Going into Thursday night’s game against the Bears in Tucson, the Wildcats are now 14-12, 5-8 and riding their first seven game losing streak since 1983.

Of course, Cal has lost twice that many games in a row and could go through the conference winless.

But relative to recent history and current expectations, Arizona’s situation might be worse than the Bears’. Lute Olson and then Miller achieved a level of consistent success that anything short of deep NCAA Tournament run is a disappointment.

“There’s a lot of things that are unusual for an Arizona team right now,” Miller said, after the most recent loss, 67-60 at Colorado  “We’re just trying to be the best we can be.”

If one factor were the root cause of the Cats’ troubles, Miller would probably be able to fix it. But they have more than issue.

Arizona’s current troubles actually began in the offseason when the program was front and center in the the FBI and NCAA investigations. One assistant coach was let go before the season started and another earlier this month.

The day after the win over Cal, sophomore guard Emmanuel Akot, who had been a regular starter after a disappointing freshman season,  abruptly left the team. “To lose one of your starters this time of year, that would hurt any team,” Cal coach Wyking Jones said. “And it’s hurting them.

Injuries have also played a part. During the first two losses of the streak, center Chase Jeter was out. The 6-10 transfer from Duke gave the Cats a low post presence that they sorely missed as USC and UCLA ran roughshod underneath.

No sooner did he get back, then freshman guard Brandon Williams injured the same knee that plagued him in high school. He has missed five games and counting. Miller said he is improving, but will not play Thursday night.

“The thing about Brandon is his playmaking -his ability to not just score himself, but get fouled on drives and get others shots,” Miller said. “He’s very clever and he was getting better … We miss him, we really do.”

And the Cats’ have lost their collective shooting eye. Before the streak, they were hitting 44.9 percent from the floor. Since the losing skid started it’s down to 36.8.

Brandon Randolph, the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 13.4 per game, has been a primary culprit During the streak, Randolph is shooting just 27.5 percent from the field, including 15.4 percent (4-for-26) from three-point range. Through Jan. 19, he was averaging 15,4 points per game. Since then he is putting up just 8.1. And his free throw accuracy has vanished. Hitting 91.2 percent from the line before the losing started he is just 9-for-22 (40.1 per cent) since.

“Brandon Randolph was playing really good basketball when we played them, playing with a lot of confidence,” Jones said.  “He seems to be in a little bit of a slump right now.”

Arizona has also been beaten on the boards. In their first 19 games the Wildcats were averaging per game plus 1.5. Since then it has been a minus 4.9.

There have been some bright spots. Forward Ryan Luther (10, above) is averaging 13.4 points over his last five games and is shooting 46 percent from 3-point range. He almost single-handedly kept the Cats in the Colorado game with his three-point shooting (4-for-9). The 6-9 transfer from Pitt is tall enough to shoot over opposing guards and quick enough to drive around bigs. He will be a tough assignment,

Guard Dylan Smith, who had a slow start to the season, has come alive of late. He s averaging 12.4 points per game over his last five games. On the season, Smith is shooting .448 from 3-point range, which is fifth-best in the Pac-12.

The Wildcats do a good job taking care of the ball, even when they lose. They have committed 10 or fewer turnovers in six of their past seven games. They are averaging 11.3 turnovers per game this season, which ranks 38th in the country. Arizona has a plus-3.6 turnover margin, which is 22nd in the country and tops in the conference.

Arizona has won the last six games against the Bears, and will likely be favored again. In the first meeting, Jeter was nearly unstoppable, scoring 23 points. Jones pointed out that the Bears interior defense (read Connor Vanover) has improved since that game. However, even though the Wildcats are on a skid, it won’t be easy for Cal.

“They are still a good basketball team,” Jones said of Arizona.. “They’ve still got talented guys. They’re Arizona.”

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