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Cats in a pickle

Citizen Staff Writer
UP NEXT: OREGON ST. (7-5) AT UA (9-3), 6:30 P.M. THURSDAY TV: FSNA RADIO: 1290 AM

ANALYSIS by STEVE RIVERA

srivera@tucsoncitizen.com

Just in time for the new year and the start of the Pac-10 season, the No. 18-ranked Arizona Wildcats had another bad bounce come their way.

And it’s not clear when things will improve as the Oregon schools roll into town this week.

Leading scorer Jerryd Bayless is out with a medial collateral ligament sprain in his right knee. UA expects definitive word on the guard’s availability by Tuesday, although interim head coach Kevin O’Neill said forward Jordan Hill had a similar injury and was out just more than a week.

And O’Neill said senior forward Bret Brielmaier is “expected back, but I don’t know (for certain).”

He and Bayless missed Arizona’s 76-63 loss at No. 2 Memphis on Saturday, the first time two UA starters missed a game with injury since Loren Woods and Richard Jefferson in a 2000 NCAA tournament loss to Wisconsin.

It all means more Wildcats should get more minutes at the most crucial time of the season. That includes point guard Nic Wise, who filled in for Bayless against Memphis with 12 points, four rebounds and four steals in 40 minutes – all career highs.

Besides Wise, this much is certain: Chase Budinger will be the team’s go-to shooter, and Hill is the team’s big man.

From there, O’Neill likely will have to mix and match lineups – much as he did Saturday – to find a way to get out of the conference gate unscathed.

UA faces Oregon State and former UA assistant Jay John on Thursday night.

“They are big games for us,” O’Neill said. “If we’re going to do anything in our league, we have to protect our home court. That’s something that has to be an emphasis for us all week.”

UA is used to playing through adversity after head coach Lute Olson announced before the season he was taking a leave of absence for personal reasons.

And the Wildcats didn’t lose much confidence after giving No. 2 Memphis a decent run on its home court without Bayless and Brielmaier – even if O’Neill insists his team “is past the noble stage” when it comes to effort and performance.

“If you’re any type of basketball player, this shouldn’t take a toll on you,” guard Jawann McClellan said. “We shouldn’t lose our confidence. We’re 9-3 right now and have been through a tough stretch of games.

“I’m sure nobody would have said we’d be 9-3 at this point with this young of a team.”

McClellan said the team has to take the positives and negatives and move on.

The positives?

UA is playing harder and longer than in the previous two seasons, and the team theme has caught on. The Cats like playing together after a few years of off-and-on dissension.

The negatives?

Arizona doesn’t have much of a bench, but it will have to find one quickly in light of the recent injuries, which is the other negative.

“We just have to suck it up and play ball,” McClellan said.

The Wildcats said they’d put the Memphis loss behind them and focus on the future.

“We have plenty of games left,” Hill said. “We have to go into the Pac-10 and kick ass and do what we have to do.”

Bad breaks, sprained knees or not.

DID YOU KNOW?

• Interim coach Kevin O’Neill used his sixth different starting lineup in 12 games in UA’s 76-63 loss at No. 2 Memphis, compared to three combinations in 31 games a year ago. Only Chase Budinger and Jawann McClellan have started all 12 games for Arizona this season.

• Oregon State coach Jay John, whose Beavers travel to UA on Thursday (6:30 p.m.), is a former UA assistant and a Salpointe High grad. His Beavers, led by Marcel Jones, beat Montana State on Sunday night to improve to 7-5 overall.

• Oregon (9-3), UA’s opponent at noon Saturday, dropped out of the Top 25 after losses to Nebraska and little-known Oakland (Mich.). The Ducks are led by Malik Hairston, who is averaging nearly 18 points.

BY THE NUMBERS

6

Points by UA’s bench at Memphis, a combined 2 for 8 from the floor

19

Turnovers by UA, the most since it had 25 against Kansas

25

Minutes played by senior Kirk Walters, resulting in four points

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