Let’s put this in perspective: The last few years Arizona has gone 70-2 in McKale Center, having lost to Oregon and UCLA in successive seasons. Still, Arizona has done fairly well in the postseason (three Elite Eights, with another Sweet 16).
Those are the facts.
And yes, worse things have happened to the Wildcats. And then to top it off Gonzaga lost on Saturday night giving a slight opening for a possible No. 1 seed in the West. Well, so much for that.
And yes, it’s tough to put into perspective for a bunch of young men who just got beat – 77-72 – by a team they’ve already beaten.
But that is Sean Miller’s task the rest of the week and rest of the way as it heads down the road for a game with Arizona State and the rest of what is the madness of March.
“I think we can control that. The hardest thing to control is when you are 26-4 and 15-2 there are a lot of great moments we’ve had,” Miller said. “(And) every once in a while people can distract players on the team. (They’ll say) ‘you need to play more minutes or the coach doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ Etcetera, Etcetera.
“It’s about keeping our team on point. We need to make sure we have our circle and we are focused on … like we have been in getting better for the next game. In moments like this you learn a lot about the character of your team. You learn a lot about the families of the players you coach and you learn a lot about the coaching staff because, hey, no one wanted to win more than us. We weren’t able to get it done tonight.”
Just by the numbers it would seem Arizona should have gotten beat by double digits, yet it stayed close. That’s not a Pollyanna approach, just true. Arizona gave up – or UCLA aggressively got – 20-second-chance points, 14 in the second half. It was out-rebounded by seven. UCLA had 10 more offensive rebounds than UA. UCLA had 13 more shots.
And, as Miller said, you can’t give one of the best offensive teams in the country any kind of advantage and expect to win. Miller went as far as saying had someone said Arizona would hold UCLA to 77 points (15 fewer than its norm) he would have taken it.
“We did a really good job in defending them, but we did a poor job rebounding,” he said. “As bad as we’ve done all season.”
And when one of your best assets – rebounding – gets beat you won’t win games, much less a big game.
What in world happened to Arizona’s rebounding?
That and second chance points was the reason why Arizona lost on Saturday night. UCLA out rebounded UA by seven, 35-28 and at no point this season had Arizona been beat up like that. Arizona has been beat in the rebounding category just six times this season … and now it’s No. 7. Hell, Arizona beat UCLA in the category by nine in the last meeting – a 96-85 victory.
“It was 20-4 on second chance points, so I think that’s the pretty clear-cut answer,” Allonzo Trier said when asked what the difference was compared to the last meeting with the Bruins.
And, of course, Miller made it an emphasis in his post-game discussion with the team.
Duh, was pretty much the reaction to the question if Miller had talked about it.
“You think? He did,” Trier said.
“They were the bigger, stronger, tougher more physical after the ball,” Miller said.
Here are three observations from Saturday’s epic game, one that didn’t disappoint (unless you are a Wildcat fan):
Who will get the last shot?
Well, it might be whoever is open. Arizona tried to get Lauri Markkanen the last shot in the waning seconds but he had a small window to shoot but then was double teamed. He then passed it to senior Kadeem Allen who had an open look and missed everything.
On the other side of the court was Trier but it’s not clear if he would have been open had the ball gone his way. But, Arizona was all but in a scramble mode given it had no timeouts left and UA needed a basket. Arizona needed a 3-pointer being down, 75-72.
“We don’t have a set play in that point in time,” said Parker Jackson-Cartwright, talking about the last shot. “We didn’t have any timeouts, so we were just trying to get a good look.”
Let’s also remember that Markkanen has gone 2 for 14 from the 3-point line in the last five games.
That zone… that zone
Once in a while Arizona looks like it can live with the shooters it has on the perimeter. Hell, on Thursday, it went 11 for 20 from the 3-point line. And all seemed well from their perimeter shooters. It was mentioned in this space pretty high up. It looked like Arizona would be OK against zone defenses – or at least it was getting better.
Then came Saturday when UA looked like a deer in headlights at times when UCLA went to its zone. UA went 5 for 18 from long distance.
“We just didn’t execute,” Miller said. “I don’t know if that alone beat us, certainly rebounding was really big.”
Miller said his team settled for threes and “lost our purpose.” He said he burned all his timeouts early because he wanted to get his team to get the ball near the basket.
Miller concluded he can get the zone thing fixed. We will see with just a few games left before the NCAA tournament.
Guard Play will be a factor
As UA heads down the final stretch, there is one thing that will help guide them far in the tournament (of course, rebounding too) but it’s the play of the guards. I had felt Trier was sitting a big game or two since his return from his 19-game suspension. The last two have been big. He had 25 on Thursday and he tied a career-high on Saturday with 28 points.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said of Saturday’s points. “We didn’t win.”
That’s the usual reaction from players who have big games but their team doesn’t win. But what it indicates is is that he’s back to being the aggressive player he was a season ago. He’s getting to the basket – or at least attacking it – and he’s hitting shots on the perimeter. He went 11 for 14 from the floor, including 3 of 6 from beyond the arc.
Arizona will need him to do that every game given the outside shooting slump Markkanen continues to be in from beyond the 3-point line.
Additionally, Arizona seems to flow nicely when Jackson-Cartwright is in the game. For all intent and purposes he had a very good game, scoring 11 points and dishing out six assists.
He played 27 important minutes in a non-starting role. Arizona will need him and Trier to step up every way they can.