What if this is as good as it gets? What if Arizona is nothing more than a No. 4 seed in the Pac-12 tournament and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament?
What if this Arizona basketball season becomes one-and-done times two?
Could it be, player for player, that there's not much difference between ASU and Arizona?
These are times that try fans' souls, especially when the calendar flips to March and your team is having difficulty playing defense, protecting the ball, identifying a good shot and, worse, beating anyone except Utah and Washington State.
Why didn't we see this fracture coming?
For almost three decades, basketball fans in this community watched as elite-level basketball teams were assembled and put on display at McKale Center. Every one of those teams, from 1988-2006, had what this team lacks: go-to shooters, lock-down defenders, game-changing big men, precision-passing point guards and NBA-ready draft picks.
And reliable help off the bench.
Each one of those teams, 1988-2006, would thump the 2013 Wildcats in a best-of-three series. Most of them would be sweeps.
The Pac-12 isn't anywhere near as good at the top as it was in the '90s and in the first half of the 21st century. There are no more Killer Teams, and that accounts, in part, for Arizona's ability to hang near the top of the standings until the final week of the regular season.
After 29 games, it's now likely that this is another transition year at Arizona, another payment for a program still recovering from Lute Olson's lingering farewell. The Wildcats should be better in 2014 and, finally, a legitimate national title contender in 2015.
Until Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski are juniors, until point guard T. J. McConnell is a senior and Sean Miller can fold two more recruiting classes into the mix and develop continuity, this return-to-prominence process is going to require more patience.
Not that there's much wrong with a 23-6 record and No. 18 national ranking. It's just that expectations here are forever warped.
In many ways, this Arizona basketball team is the equivalent of deploying these six former Wildcats:
Ray Owes as a senior.
Corey Williams as a junior.
Nic Wise as a senior.
Ed Stokes as a freshman.
Wayne Womack as a freshman.
Craig McMillan as a sophomore.
How far do you think those six players could take Arizona? All were good, solid players. Owes and Wise were first-team All-Pac-10 performers. None were stars. Only Stokes reached the NBA. He played in four games.
Here's how I call it:
• Owes and Solomon Hill. In 1995, Owes was an All-Pac-10 forward, as Hill will be this year. Owes averaged 15.1 points and 5.5 rebounds. Hill is at 13.6 and 5.3.
• Williams and Kevin Parrom. In 1995, alternating at shooting guard and small forward, Williams, a junior, averaged 6.8 points and 4.1 rebounds. He was a useful three-point shooter. Parrom is averaging 8.5 points and 4.9 rebounds as a Williams-type combo wing player.
• Wise and Mark Lyons. As a shoot-first senior in 2010, Wise averaged 14.4 points, had 101 assists and 73 turnovers, and shot a poor .386 afield. Lyons is averaging 15.1 points and has 89 assists and 81 turnovers. He shoots .424 afield. Wise took 11 shots a game, as does Lyons.
• Stokes and Kaleb Tarczewski. As a freshman in 1990, Stokes averaged 8.0 points and 4.6 rebounds. Tarczewski is averaging 6.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Much like Tarczewski, Stokes, the freshman, had difficulty with the speed of the game and catching the ball in traffic.
• Womack and Brandon Ashley. As a freshman in 1990, Womack played mostly at power forward. He averaged 6.8 points and 3.9 rebounds. He was a defensive liability and not yet strong enough to hold his own inside. Ashley, who is similarly undersized as a power forward, is averaging 7.4 points.
• McMillan and Nick Johnson. As a sophomore in 1987, McMillan appeared to be on a star trajectory. He averaged 12.7 points at off guard and then turned into a role player his final two seasons. Johnson, averaging 11.4 points at off guard, opened the year as a star-to-be and has since struggled trying to be a go-to player.
Arizona hasn't overwhelmed anyone with pure talent and firepower this year.
For a quarter-century, Arizona could outscore and make meaningless most of its flaws on defense and in rebounding. But this year, tellingly, the Wildcats have scored 80 points in just one conference game (in regulation).
Ten years ago, 2002-03, Arizona scored 80 or more in 14 league games.
Fifteen years ago, 1997-98, Arizona scored 80 or more in 15 league games.
Twenty years ago, 1992-93, Arizona scored 80 or more in 15 league games.
Now the Wildcats are desperate to cling to fourth place. We should have seen it coming.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ghansen711.