Arizona basketball prides itself around toughness. It’s the go-to word you’ll hear from Sean Miller in any press conference. TJ McConnell might as well have it tattooed on his chest.
It’s the word recruits use when they describe why they want to come to Tucson. Toughness personifies everything about the Wildcats.
Except right now, toughness only sounds like a hollow verbiage to plaster on McKale’s newly renovated walls.
It surely didn’t follow the Wildcats on the court Sunday night when they took on Oregon State in Corvallis.
The Beavers had not beaten a top 10 opponent since 2000 when they upset an Arizona team ranked No. 3 in the nation. 14 years later, Oregon State once again pulled off a stunning upset, topping the No. 7 Wildcats 58-56.
But it’s not the outcome that’s so concerning. On that same Sunday, Duke got handled by NC State while Wisconsin lost to Rutgers.
However, those outcomes offer no shelter for how Arizona looked against the Beavers. From the start, the Wildcats were tentative – getting outhustled off the glass and not attacking the paint as a team with their size advantage should.
If you want to look at the box score, the story might appear even worse than it actually was.
Kaleb Tarczewski finished with four points and zero rebounds. Brandon Ashley went 2-8 and had three rebounds. The only time Dusan Ristic entered the stat-sheet was for picking up a foul.
As a team, the Wildcats were out-rebounded 32-26.
It wasn’t all on the big men. Arizona couldn’t buy a bucket from outside most of the game, going 4-17 from three point range. Stanley Johnson limited himself by getting in early foul trouble.
Poor shooting nights happen and freshmen make freshmen mistakes.
What can’t be ignored is that the Wildcats didn’t appear to want to attack. That’s another one of those words Miller likes to drop all the time.
With exception to McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, there wasn’t the pressure and intensity we’re used to seeing from Arizona.
On defense, Arizona held Oregon State to under 60 but the Beavers still made over 50 percent of their attempts. They had just enough open looks to keep treading water.
Miscues on defense are bound to happen over 40 minutes. However, in games like this when Arizona doesn’t have the offensive firepower to make up for those mistakes, the Wildcats have to be nearly flawless defending the hoop.
That requires constant energy, constant focus. On just enough possessions, that focus wasn’t there.
As for the offense, nothing sums up Arizona’s struggles better than the final possession. With 30 seconds to go, the Wildcats fell back into the same half-court trap that had plagued them all game instead of trying to attack and score quickly.
Dribbling into traps. Passing into guarded looks. There was no set design for who would take the final shot, maybe because no one wanted it.
After letting the clock go all the way down to under five seconds, McConnell hoisted an off-balance attempt and that was that.
A single loss, even one as disappointing as the one Oregon State laid on the Cats, shouldn’t call for a complete overhaul to the system. Talent wise, Arizona still has as strong a starting five as anyone in the country. Gabe York and Elliott Pitts are still capable shooters who need to regain their confidence.
But we knew going in that talent wasn’t the issue. Rather, the biggest concern at the start of the season and now, midway through, is whether everyone can buy in.
Toughness hasn’t left the program and losses are said to make teams tougher. Now is the time that Arizona needs to put their adage to good use and bear down.