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February 11, 2013

Half-opening disappearing acts spell trouble for March

Magic Mike can refer to any one of three topics:

- A Channing Tatum movie my wife enjoyed that I have no plans to see.

- A toy from the mid-1980s that was a D-battery operated, talking robot. Think a less sophisticated version of Paulie's birthday present in Rocky IV.

- California basketball coach Mike Montgomery.

Montgomery has conjured up plenty of surprises in his many meetings with Arizona, both at Stanford and Cal. The latest proverbial rabbit pulled from the hat was Allen Crabbe and his 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting.

As for UA's sole possession of the Pac-12 Conference lead: now you see it, now you don't.

"We had no answer," Sean Miller told reporters after the 77-69 loss, which dropped the Wildcats to 20-3, 8-3 in the league.

Then again, when a hand gets hot come tournament time, teams go down. Names like Stephen Curry, Fennis Dembo and Steve Nash were made at the expense of higher-seeded March victims.

"Once guys like Allen [Crabbe] get going, it's something you have to jump on early and stop and we didn't do that tonight," Kevin Parrom said.

The other, and more troublesome, issue behind UA's loss to Cal that Parrom alludes to is the strong starts that have been missing. Not every opponent is going to have a scorer capable of replicating Crabbe's magician's act.

More disconcerting for the Wildcats in the regular season's home stretch than dropping a second home conference game is the routine disappearing act that has been UA's greatest mystery.

UA's tendency to give up huge runs to start halves looked to be solved. The Wildcats led early, and for much of the first half. Their inability to extend the lead to double digits proved problematic, but given that second halves have typically been a time UA finds its rhythm, a five-point lead may have felt safe.

Then - poof! - along came the second 20 minutes, and there went the lead. Outscored 15-0 in one stretch early in the stanza, the Wildcats were in the all-too-familiar role of trying to battle back from behind double digits.

February sets the stage for March. Now is when teams establish their identity for the NCAA tournament push. The identity UA has carved out is one that thrives on chaos. Nearly every game sees the opponent take a sizeable lead, and the Wildcats fight furiously to rally.

Most times, it's worked. The three instances in which it hasn't make for a troubling trend with the tournament around the corner.

Round of 64 upsets are what make March mad. And often behind these upsets are those runs that give the underdog hope.

Take Duke's loss to Lehigh last season. The Blue Devils surrendered a 15-5 run out of the locker room that gave the Mountain Hawks a lead they would hold for all but 13 seconds of the game's final 12 minutes.

On the 20-year anniversary of UA becoming just the second No. 2 to ever lose to a No. 15, any crack in the armor that an underdog can exploit should be seen as a red flag.

And along with UA's lead atop the conference, Magic Mike Montgomery made something else disappear: the No. 1 seed it once positioned itself for becomes much less attainable with a loss to Cal on the resume.

Kyle KensingKyle Kensing
GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer

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