ASU deflates Wildcats’ hopes for another trip to the Big Dance

The hissing noise emanating from Tucson last night could be heard as far away as Casa Grande.  It was the air being let out of the Wildcats’ basketball season following the 73-69 loss to arch-enemy ASU.

This one really hurt because it meant so much more than a loss to a cross-state rival.  A team, by the way, the Wildcats had already beaten once this season – by almost 20 points!

They held ASU to 30 percent shooting in the first game; in the re-match, the Devils shot 67% in the second half alone!  The Cats let Ty Abbott get the hot hand and he torched them for 28 points.  They got easy transition baskets in the first game and only two points off the fast break in the second game.  And every time they made a run toward the end of the game, they let Jerren Shipp launch a trey to keep them at bay.

No, this one was especially painful because it could very well signal the end to a 25-year run of making it to the NCAA tournament next month.  The Big Dance this year may have to go on without the Cats.

If the Cats have any chance at all of making the field of 65 for a 26th time, they will have to make a run at winning the Pac-10 tournament because, at 13-13 overall and 7-7 in conference, they can’t expect an at-large bid.  And they’re 2 1/2 games out of first place in the conference.

But they would need to be building up some momentum already since there are only four games left before the season wraps up and the tourney starts.  It doesn’t bode well that they have lost four of their last five games.  They should have strutted into the ASU game full of confidence, knowing they manhandled the Devils last time they met.  But their game was sloppy at times, their defense had huge lapses, and they couldn’t make a consistent run at the Devils.

Sure, they’re a young team.  But the Cats’ new coach, Sean Miller, refuses to use that as an excuse.  He knows they have deeper issues to deal with, well beyond just the mistakes of youth.

And, to make life even tougher for the Cats, hated rival ASU is sitting pretty, just a half-game behind conference front-runner California.  They’re 19-8 and 9-5 in conference.  And the win last night marked the third straight year the Devils came into McKale Center and won – something they haven’t been able to do since the ’80s.  Lute wouldn’t allow it.

This game was an important one for the Sun Devils, too.  It was the start to a three-game road trip, with the next two in California.  So winning this one got things off to a good start and keeps them within striking distance of first place.

The Devils, who were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10 in the pre-season, have exceeded expectations.  Quite the contrary for the Wildcats, who got off to a great start by winning their first four conference games.

Now the Cats have to find a way to get that swagger back… if it isn’t already too late.