Can 'Zona shed 'soft' label in NYC?

11/24/2004 - Arizona Wildcats

Arizona has two games in New York in the Preseason NIT to prove to itself (let alone the cynics) that it's tough enough to contend nationally.

Sunday's 18-point loss at Virginia opened up old wounds that festered last season with criticism the team is soft and lacks overall focus.

The Wildcats, thought to be the class of the Pac-10, finished third last season. They only had one win against a high-major NCAA Tournament team – an early-season 91-83 against Texas in New York. They lost to Florida in Springfield, Mass., (albeit on a final possession) were swept by Stanford and lost three times to Washington. Their first-round NCAA loss to Seton Hall capped off a season of missed chances.

Throughout this preseason, the staff professed that this team was different and more attentive to detail.

Not so.

"We didn't play well, we didn't attack and it was all us," Arizona associate head coach Jim Rosborough said. "We didn't push the ball up court and we weren't tough. We were all concerned about that and told them all fall about our reputation. People call us cream puffs and that we're not tough."

There had been some concern that scheduling a desperate Virginia team on the way to New York was a dangerous move. With the ACC to deal with in six weeks, the Cavs needed a high-profile non-conference win not only for their own confidence but also to give the alumni reason to keep faith in the direction of the program.

On the surface, scheduling Virginia did backfire, but it could prove to be the best thing for the Wildcats if they can rebound in New York. Arizona has a shot to change the opinion on this squad with victories against Michigan and then either Wake Forest or Providence.

"We need to come in and play well," Rosborough said. "We've been in this tournament three times and won it. If we're able to go in and win the thing against very, very good competition, then we'll be right back where we were as one of the top teams in the country. Sunday, we weren't at all. We need to play well and get a couple of wins."

This isn't Arizona's only shot. The Wildcats scheduled up more this season because coach Lute Olson believes he has a national contender. He doesn't have any downright dogs on the schedule and faces games against Wyoming (just beat Princeton on Monday), Mississippi State in the John Wooden Classic in Anaheim (potential SEC West champ), Utah (top-three MWC team), at Marquette (5-0 through Monday), Manhattan (potential NCAA team again) and possibly Richmond (just won at Seton Hall) in the Fiesta Bowl Classic in Tucson.

The Wildcats will have plenty of chances to shed their soft label before they get to the Pac-10. But if they are to change their rep, they'll need more productivity from Isaiah Fox. Fox was suspended for the two exhibition games and the season opener. He lost his starting job to slender sophomore Ivan Radenovic. Randenovic was a non-factor against the Cavaliers with five points. Fox played just seven minutes and didn't score.

But the staff isn't going to hand minutes to Fox, who is still trying to show that he's recovered from a knee injury that kept him out of all but two games last season.

"We need a big body in there," Rosborough said of Fox. Fox would be a buffer for the Wildcats' starting center Channing Frye. The senior held up his own against the Cavs with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but he could use the help of a bruiser in the post.

"He's 260 pounds and we need him in there," Rosborough said. "But he's got to earn the time."

Sophomore point guard Mustafa Shakur has emerged as the leader of the team. That makes sense, but Shakur's got to get senior wing Salim Stoudamire to be in sync. Stoudamire shot just 4-for-11, (3-for-10 on 3s) for 13 points at Virginia after making 9-of-14 from behind the arc in Arizona's first two games.

"[Stoudamire] has to make shots to be a valuable guy for us," Rosborough said.

Hassan Adams, one of the top athletes and most versatile players in the country, brings toughness. The coaches would like to get more from the bench, from players like backup guard Chris Rodgers. The top freshman so far has been 6-foot-5 Jawann McClellan, who could be on the court more often if the Wildcats opt to go with a smaller frontline.

. "We're still evolving," Rosborough said. "We've got good players but the question is are we tough and are we willing to defend."

The answers could come in New York.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.