For the University of Arizona basketball players, it was hard to be thankful this Thanksgiving season.
While the Tucson campus cleared out for the holiday break, the men’s basketball team packed up and headed for the Bahamas. Not for a get-away weekend, but to take part in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament that was held on Paradise Island.
It was a long way to travel for a basketball tournament. And the trip back was much longer than the five hours it took to get there. Or at least it seemed that way.
The flight back gave the Wildcats plenty of time to think about what went wrong in the tourney. Arizona, which entered the tournament as the No. 2 team in the national rankings, lost all three games it played in the early-season tourney – the only team in the event to return to the States without a single win.
The Wildcats had won both of their exhibition games and also notched wins in their first three non-conference games. But then they went six days without a game. Maybe that lay-off had something to do with how they played over the weekend. But more likely, it was the level of competition they faced in the Bahamas.
They were stunned by North Carolina State in Wednesday’s tourney opener when the Wolfpack used a late run to clinch the 90-84 upset. SMU served up the second loss in the first game of the consolation round, despite shooting 31 percent from the field. The Mustangs led most of the game and used a 20-11 advantage on the offensive boards to pull off the 66-60 victory.
Purdue put the nail in the coffin on the third and final night of the tourney. The No. 18 Boilermakers used a high-octane offensive effort Friday night to post the 89-64 win, shooting 57 percent from the floor and connecting on 11 of 23 attempts from behind the arc.
The Wildcats are now 3-3 and no longer ranked in the nation’s Top 25 – a devastating drop for a team with so much promise.
It has been a tough season for Arizona mentally due to the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the program following the indictment of assistant coach Book Richardson (released from the program) in an FBI corruption probe into college recruiting. And more recently, assistant coach Mark Phelps was suspended five days without pay for an undisclosed NCAA violation and senior forward Keanu Pinder was given a one-game suspension, apparently unrelated to any of the other troubles.
Add to that a rash of injuries that had head coach Sean Miller working with just eight scholarship players.
But this is a talent-rich team that is deep at just about every position. A team that shouldn’t be dealing with a three-game losing streak at this point in the season.
Sometimes, a wake-up call is a good thing. Arizona has been projected by numerous analysts to be a Final Four team this year. When that kind of praise comes early, a little over-confidence can creep into the psyche. That’s certainly not the case any longer.
Miller has always said he likes playing in non-conference tournaments where his teams play back-to-back games because it prepares them early for postseason play.
Based on what he saw last week, it’s probably a good thing the postseason is still a long way off.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)