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Cats facing daunting slate with depleted roster

Citizen Staff Writer


Sports Columnist

TEMPE – Let ASU thump its chest, storm the court, crow about beating Arizona for the second time in almost 13 years.

Bully for the Sun Devils. They have a rising program, a freshman star in James Harden and they’re 3-0 in the Pac-10 after pick-pocketing a 64-59 overtime victory Wednesday against Arizona at Wells Fargo Arena.

Back in Wildcat-land there is angst and, quite possibly, anger. Stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen.

Arizona is 10-5, having lost three of its past four games. There might as well be huge neon signs flashing “Danger, Danger.” The next three games are on the road, and none will be easy – Houston, Stanford, Cal. Yes, it could get much worse before it gets better – if it gets better.

“We have to put a stop to the bleeding,” said interim coach Kevin O’Neill.

Did the Wildcats blow it Wednesday night?

They were up 55-50 with 1:53 left, but, in need of one more stop or one more basket, they could get neither. Frustrating.

No doubt, it will be a hard slog for Arizona to continue to find its resolve. The season already has been an unending test of maturity and will.

I mean, have you really considered everything this team has been through?

It’s down a Hall of Fame head coach, playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, learning new systems on offense and defense, has been without its leading scorer in the past four games and had a freshman guard transfer in December.

O’Neill pulled freshman guard Zane Johnson out of his redshirt Wednesday night because of a lack of bodies.

Oh yeah, starting forward Bret Brielmaier injured his shoulder again against ASU and will be out “for a while,” O’Neill said.

Just having head coach Lute Olson on a personal leave and being down one coach on the bench and in practices would be hard enough.

“When it rains, it pours a little bit,” O’Neill said.

Like an August monsoon.

“It’s a gut check,” said sophomore guard Nic Wise.

Given the tough road ahead, the Wildcats are hanging off the edge of the cliff by their fingertips, looking down into the abyss. The drama is going to be in seeing if they can pull themselves back onto solid ground.

“Our guys are busting their butts,” O’Neill said. “I like their effort. The only time I have not liked our effort since the first half of the Virginia game is the first half of the Oregon game.”

The Wildcats are who they are. They don’t have the athletes or the depth to run and press all day. There are 16 regular-season games left, and the vast majority will be like the one Wednesday night – a less-than-artful bar fight.

Perhaps just getting Jerryd Bayless back will be a cure-all. Arizona doesn’t have enough scorers without him.

“It’s tough not having your full squad out there,” said forward Chase Budinger. “But that can’t be any explanation for ‘we should have done better.’ I’m not going to make any excuses by saying we’re injured right now.”

Said guard Jawann McClellan: “Just because someone is hurt, that shouldn’t wear on us. We’re grown men. That’s just part of the game.”

O’Neill points out that he is asking key players to do way more than they did last season.

Wise played 41 minutes at point guard against ASU. Sophomore center Jordan Hill, who didn’t really even play until the second half of last season, is now a go-to low-post scorer. Daniel Dillon played 44 minutes against the Sun Devils. No offense to Dillon, but that’s not how Arizona drew up this season.

ASU, meanwhile, is writing a happy script. Harden, a 6-foot-4 guard, is a tough, strong kid who has NBA get-into-the-lane skills. The Wildcats couldn’t stop him in the second half. Harden finished with 26 points after he had just four in the first half.

“He’s a tough matchup for anybody,” Wise said. “He’s a great player.”

So, great for ASU. The Devils should enjoy the win. It’s a good one. The teams meet again Feb. 10 in Tucson. That is a month away. Whether it is a long month or a short month for UA depends on how it continues to handle adversity.

“They have sustained excellence for a long time. That’s not easy to do,” said ASU coach Herb Sendek. “We happened to win tonight’s game. No more. No less.”

• Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com

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