When current New York Knick and NBA Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Channing Frye graduated, he left big shoes to fill. Arizona had a number of big bodies and big feet to fill those shoes, however, and men's basketball head coach Lute Olson and his coaching staff were excited to use their frontcourt depth against opponents.
That depth has been dissipated — if not completely obliterated — since the season began. While getting swept on the road at the Oregon schools, Arizona's beef, aside from junior forward Ivan Radenovic, tallied zero points and two rebounds in just 20 minutes.
Radenovic wasn't much better against Oregon State Thursday, scoring five points and grabbing five rebounds in 26 minutes. He improved against Oregon Saturday when he scored 12 points and pulled down six rebounds before fouling out.
"Last weekend, it was awful," senior forward Isaiah Fox said.
Fox played 12 minutes in the last three games after sitting out the previous four games.
"Coming into the season, I didn't really expect it to be like this," he said. "On this last trip, I got into the games kind of early, so I'm getting another opportunity, but it's a little bit frustrating.
"When stuff like this happens, you just have to put the blame and the onus on yourself, so you gotta work even harder so you can't point the finger at anyone. I'm not mad or anything like that at anybody. I just have to come in and work harder, and hopefully I'll get more opportunities."
While Fox was expected to play more minutes this season, the main role of Frye's replacement was centered on junior center Kirk Walters. Walters played two minutes in each of the last two games, committing two turnovers and grabbing one rebound.
"Do we need him? Yes," associate head coach Jim Rosborough said. "It's up to Kirk to have a good week of practice so we can get him in. Then it's up to Kirk when he does get in the games [to make sure] it's positive for him and positive for the team. He's probably a little frustrated and we're a little frustrated, and yet my analysis is that we sure could use Kirk."
Olson said the games against Stanford and California, tomorrow and Saturday, respectively, will be the first time Arizona faces back-to-back physical teams. Stanford senior Matt Haryasz and Cal sophomore Leon Powe, two of the Pacific 10 Conference's best post players, present big bodies for the Wildcats to handle.
"At this point, I had hoped that our inside game would have developed better," Olson said. "We've been very inconsistent there, and we need a big man to step up, and that's what we're going to try to accomplish this week, … to get one of those guys that we can count on going in and doing the job."
The pain for Arizona's J.P. Prince extended far beyond losing a loose ball against Oregon State Jan. 12. The freshman guard will be out for tomorrow's game against Stanford after sustaining a lower leg injury in the same game against the Beavers.
Walters started nine games before being replaced in the lineup by freshman wing Marcus Williams and has seen his production decline since.
"I think the guys would like Kirk to get back into a position where he can get us 25 minutes a game," Rosborough said.
Olson said Walters' confidence has been completely shot, but the staff will attempt to get it back.
"The biggest single problem is just confidence," Olson said. "He just has none right now, so we're going to try to be more patient with him in practice and in game situations, and there will be times he's going to make mistakes, and we're going to just have to let the mistakes ride out."
Fox said the big men practice at least 30 minutes together each day and always try to push each other to improve. Being the veteran of the group, which also includes sophomore Bret Brielmaier, redshirt freshman Mohamed Tangara and redshirt Fendi Onobun, Fox said he understands what Walters is going through.
"He knows he needs to play better, and a lot of people are counting on him," Fox said. "He's a true center and he blocks shots. He just had a bad weekend up there and didn't see the minutes, and sometimes that's the way it goes."
Tangara has been slow to develop but may see some playing time because of his physical nature.
"If we look at who's the most physical, it's definitely Mohamed," Olson said. "He'll go to the glass every time, and he'll defend really hard. The problem is he probably averages a foul every 40 seconds or so, but I think that's improving."
Meanwhile, Brielmaier plays physically and is known as a hustle player, but standing at just 6-foot-6, it is sometimes tough to play him against taller post players.
Radenovic has been up and down all season and often plays on the perimeter, but he has seen his numbers increase, averaging more than 11 points and six rebounds in the last five games.
Still, the Wildcats will need more than just Radenovic to keep up with physical teams and this weekend is the time for Arizona's big men to play up to their billing.
"We have to step it up," Fox said. "We have to rebound the ball better, and we have to make sure when we're in the ballgame, we're doing something productive out there. I hope it's going to turn around for us, but I think last weekend wasn't a great performance by us at all."