There’s never a good time for Arizona State to head down to Tucson to play a basketball game.
The Sun Devils are 1-22 in the Old Pueblo since Lute Olson took over as coach in the 1983-84 season. Their only victory came in 1995 and it required an asterisk; Arizona starters Damon Stoudamire and Joseph Blair sat out because of suspensions.
This trip comes at a particularly bad time, though.
The Wildcats have lost three straight Pac-10 games for the first time since the ’83-84 season.
They’re in seventh place in the conference with a 4-4 record.
They’re frustrated, angry and anxious to put a big hurt on someone.
Unfortunately for ASU coach Herb Sendek, that someone would appear to be ASU — the human sacrifice.
“I know coach is going to get those guys going again,” Oregon State coach Jay John, a former Wildcats assistant, said of Olson.
It would be overstating things to say the Wildcats have fallen on hard times. They’re still ranked No. 17 in the country, and the NCAA tournament won’t go on without them.
But after a 13-2 start that had fans and college basketball cognoscenti talking about them in terms of the Final Four, the Wildcats have had their flaws exposed.
The biggest problem: They can’t put the ball in the basket.
Arizona shot 38.3 percent in its loss against USC on Thursday, then followed that up by shooting 39.3 percent from the field against UCLA on Saturday.
The errant shooting not only has cost Arizona wins; it’s robbed the Wildcats of their confidence.
“We’ve been in a situation where every one of the games we’ve lost we could have won by shooting a better percentage,” Olson said. “We need to get our shooting touch back. If we get our shooting touch back, we’ll get our swagger back.”
The Wildcats play their next four games at McKale Center, so they could experience a short-term correction. But the two deficiencies that caused their shooting woes aren’t going away:
1. Arizona doesn’t have a big man that can get easy baskets inside or draw double-teams away from shooters. Ivan Radenovic is playing center but the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Serbian is more comfortable facing the basket.
2. The Wildcats are getting little, if any, production from their bench. Arizona’s five starters — Radenovic, Marcus Williams, Chase Budinger, Mustafa Shakur and Jawann McClellan — account for 90 percent (75.7) of Arizona’s 84.1 points per game.
The top-scoring reserve is freshman point guard Nic Wise, who’s averaging 2.5 points per game.
“Depth has been a problem,” Olson said.
Arizona could get away with a short rotation if the Pac-10 was still a 99-pound weakling. But the conference has bulked up. Five teams — UCLA, Oregon, Arizona, Washington State and USC — are ranked in the top 25. And seven clubs, including Stanford and California, could make the NCAA tournament.
“The conference is so tough now,” Olson said.
Arizona already has made the two most daunting trips in the Pac-10 — to Los Angeles and the Washington schools — so its schedule will be more favorable the second half of league play.
Where the Wildcats finish in the Pac-10 is irrelevant, however. This season, like every season, is about the Final Four.
Three weeks ago, a trip to Atlanta seemed to be on Arizona’s itinerary.
The Wildcats just want to feel good about themselves again.
At ASU’s expense.
Listen to Scott Bordow every Monday at 1:25 p.m. on The Fan (1060 AM) with Bob Kemp.