Beating UA at McKale easier task these days

2010-01-09T00:00:00Z Beating UA at McKale easier task these days Opinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 09, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Washington State's Ken Bone is the 55th Pac-10 head coach to sit on the visitors' bench at McKale Center and on Friday night he became just the 32nd to win a game there.

That should give you an idea of what it still means when someone other than Arizona wins a Pac-10 game here.

The Cougars reacted to Friday's 78-76 victory with far more relish than beating a team that is below .500 merits, which is proof that a transitioning Arizona team isn't getting anyone's B game yet.

"I grew up always watching Arizona on TV," said Cougars freshman guard Reggie Moore, who was superb with a game-high 20 points.

The difference is that Moore grew up watching Arizona win. Things have changed but the reputation endures.

Mike Montgomery coached in 11 games at McKale before he finally won. Ben Braun went 0-12 and Henry Bibby 0-8. Hall of Famer Ralph Miller lost his last seven games at McKale. No wins: Rob Evans, Kelvin Sampson and a lot of guys you've forgotten, like Eddie Payne and Jay John.

Bone's team won on Friday for a lot of reasons, many related to an Arizona defense that Sean Miller compared to a cornerback having a receiver run by him for a touchdown.

The Cougars won because, believe it or not, Wazzu is now a basketball school. Forget those Rose Bowls of 1997 and 2003. Arizona has now lost four of its last seven games to the Cougars and it's a crock to think that it's flukish in any way.

"It's really important to come into a place like McKale and walk out with a win," said Bone, who then stretched the truth a bit by saying "they're a real good team with a lot of talent."

Arizona will be a good team someday, maybe as soon as 2011. But not yet.

The Cougars are mostly sophomores and freshmen, but they've got two things the Wildcats don't have: a history that dates more than 15 games and, yes, more advanced players. You could make a good argument that Moore, Klay Thompson, and power insider DeAngelo Casto are the best threesome in the Pac-10, although I'm sure Cal's Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson would give them a good run.

And there's one more thing: while Miller is trying to identify anyone who can play defense reliably and on a consistent basis, the home-court advantage at McKale isn't what it used to be. Not even close.

That 38-game winning streak Arizona had against the Cougars from 1986 to 2005 is ancient history. The Wildcats' margin for error is so small that one call can turn a game and on Friday it did.

The charging foul called on UA freshman Derrick Williams with 6:48 remaining was the kind of call that has gone against the visiting team at McKale for 25 years. But Friday night, off-side referee Mike Reed rushed from 30 feet away to whistle the foul on Williams, his fifth, in a game WSU led 62-58.

Casto, who was guarding Williams, did a semi-flop on the play. It meant that Williams was out after a bare 17 minutes and it was the play of the game until Moore fed to Casto for the deciding bucket with 0.1 remaining.

"I was really shocked they called it," said Thompson, a Chase Budinger-type offensive marvel who scored 19 points and had eight defensive rebounds. "But it was the right call."

To his credit, Miller was off the UA bench and in the face of Reed in an instant. He glared at the official before and after a timeout, but the damage had been done. In previous years, the refs would rarely make a call like that, and especially not in front of the 6-foot 5-inch Olson's bench.

But that's part of the ongoing transition. Miller's going to have to put in some serious time in this league before his presence locks into the referees' subconscious thoughts.

"Sometimes," said Miller, defusing an issue some coaches would've chewed on for days, "you can get all caught up in that as a new coach. But right now it's important to stay poised. … A lot of the fouls called were correct calls."

The last thing the Wildcats need at this stage is to have their coach declare war on the zebras. You need a lot of equity to try that and Miller has almost no equity on this team, one that shot well enough, and scored enough, to win most games. Alas, as Miller said several times, his team played such inept defense that it was "praying" for the Cougars to miss a shot.

About this time in his first year at Xavier, Miller was 8-7 and similarly exasperated. The Musketeers had lost to Fordham and Miami of Ohio and dropped a couple of overtime games. They would conclude the season 17-12,losing 10 of those games by single digits.

This year's Wildcats may yet exceed that: They've already lost four single-digit decisions and seem destined for a few more while defensive repairs are being made.

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