At 6:15 a.m. Friday, I handed the security man my ID and boarding pass to Seattle.

"What happened to the Cats last night?" he asked.

Before I could answer, a man behind me said, "Natyazhko had one rebound."

And as I went through the security process - shoes off, laptop in a bin - the basketball chatter leading to Gate 6 at Tucson International Airport spread like a virus the day before UA's football game at Washington.

Arizona had lost to Seattle Pacific. Kyle Fogg made one basket after shooting 40,000 jumpers over the summer. Who's going to play center? Did they goof on the evaluation of point guard Josiah Turner?

The tenor across this town was such that when Humboldt State showed up Tuesday night at McKale Center, the Lumberjacks were actually feared the way Wildcat fans have feared Oregon and Cal and someone with recognizable names and faces.

At Tuesday's first TV timeout, Sean Miller did something he rarely does. The Arizona coach unbuttoned his jacket and tossed it to a trainer. He loosened his tie and the neck and then went into a midseason rant with referee Bill Kennedy, torqued off by a traveling call.

There was some work to be done.

Arizona won 60-51, and afterward senior forward Jesse Perry said, "I definitely think we'll have some growing pains."

Miller was much more critical than his players. He publicly challenged junior forward Solomon Hill to put up and shut up, although I think he delivered the shut up part first. He was unhappy with free-throw shooting, his team's psyche and twice, as if to make a point, said that a 10-player rotation is in jeopardy.

You can only imagine how much more to the point he was in the dressing room, when no one had a video camera or tape-recorder, and it was just between him and a team that hasn't yet responded to the departure of Derrick Williams.

No one has stepped forward to demonstrate he'll be the leader. No one has played like a potential all-conference player, or like someone who favorably responds to the heat. That rankles Miller. The put-the-team-on-my-back job remains vacant.

Arizona opens the regular season in five days against Valpo. After struggling mightily against a pair of Division II schools, the Wildcats appear skittish, and their coach has their full attention.

"I'm incredibly NOT comfortable," Miller said when asked about the Valpo opener. "But there's no panic in me right now."

We should have seen this coming from a few miles away.

Arizona spent the offseason basking in the glory of a 30-win season in which it won the Pac-10 title and routed Duke in the Sweet 16. This is essentially a group of players searching for a leader, a reliable scorer and the first sign of chemistry.

I thought the most pertinent moment of Tuesday's game came when the large video board showed ex-Wildcat center Sean Rooks sitting in the stands.

Do you realize that Rooks, who went on to play 12 NBA seasons, was not game-ready when he arrived at Arizona in the fall of 1987? He redshirted.

Do you realize that neither of Arizona's 1994 Final Four guards, Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves, started as freshmen? Or that even the celebrated Jason Terry languished on Lute Olson's bench for the first half of his freshman season?

As accustomed as Tucson is to flipping a switch and having its basketball teams roll through November, this team is built differently. At this time last year, Angelo Chol was playing against Bonita Vista High School near San Diego. A year ago, freshman guard Nick Johnson was playing against Stone Ridge Christian of Merced, Calif.

By the time Miller's third Arizona team hits January, it seems likely that Johnson, Chol and Turner will be part of a refined playing rotation, improved greatly by the return of Kevin Parrom.

What you see now is not what you'll see in six weeks.

"We all recognize that our starting point isn't very high," said Miller. "But we're going to get better. No question we're going to get better."

I suspect Miller freaked out half of the million people in Pima County at the Pac-12 media day when he insisted the Wildcats are not the No. 3 team in the league and did not add "right now," to his remarks.

On Tuesday, he mended that message. Obviously, this group is blessed with more able basketball bodies than half of the Pac-12, and maybe all but one or two teams in the conference. But Miller delivered his message: Last season ended six months ago.

"Maybe down the line when it all comes together, we can look back and say, 'Boy, we've come a long way,'" he said Tuesday.

This is not the most alarming start to an Arizona season, but it's close. In 1982-83, the Wildcats unwisely chose to open with a game at Houston, Phi Slamma Jamma, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, eschewing an exhibition game so that it could play a team that would go 31-3 and play for the national title.

The Wildcats, coached by Ben Lindsey, were so unprepared that they flew to Houston without first reserving hotel rooms.

Arizona committed 33 turnovers, lost 89-58, and Lindsey was fired 3 1/2 months later.

By comparison, losing to Seattle Pacific and struggling against Humboldt State was a peaceful, easy feeling.

The hard stuff hasn't even started.