The Arizona men’s basketball team needs to get better – and fast. It has no other choice. By the time the next game rolls around it’ll be March and that’s when all the madness begins.
The past 29 games were just the prelims, including its 89-88 last-second loss to visiting Arizona State.
“We had that mentality a long part of this season,” said UA senior Courtney Ramey about winning the rest of the way. “It’s tough to lose the last game at home. Me and Cedric (Henderson) and all the seniors, it meant a lot for us. But it ain’t the end of the season.
“We got two more games to play against two good teams, and we got the Pac-12 Tournament. We’re going to get ready for March, and I think we’re going to be a whole new team now after today’s game. We’re gonna buckle up and get better.”
Buckle up, indeed.
Again, it has no choice.
Before we get to the shot heard all around the state – Devan Cambridge’s beyond-the-halfcourt heave that found nothing but net and his only 3-pointer of the game – there was plenty that happened to make that one possible.
Free throws? Arizona went 23 for 34 for 67 percent. A couple here, a couple there and Arizona eventually left a few points on the table. It went into the game shooting 72 percent. Hit two more free throws and it ends the day at 73 percent. Circumstances of the game change, of course, but two more free throws are two more free throws.
“Yeah, you’d like to make one or two more,” Tommy Lloyd said. “It probably makes a difference.”
Defense? Just a few weeks ago Arizona went from No. 88 in the country to one of the best. Saturday, it was hardly that. ASU had not better than 50 precent just four times this season. It ended at 53.7 percent, shooting above 50 percent all game.
“Their guys made a lot of shots (36 for 67),” Lloyd said. “They were aggressive. I’ll have to come back and see how well we did contesting the shots. They got in a little bit of a rhythm offensively and they made some tough shots. They’re talented players. They’ve maybe been a little inconsistent overall, but when they’ve been right, they’ve been right. Obviously, we felt like today they were going to be right. I’m not surprised by how they played. I just wish we were going to play a little bit better but I’m giving them credit.”
Synergy? Arizona played well in spots. It was able to take a 10-point lead with 6:30 left in the second half. Thing looked good. Until …
But UA couldn’t shake ASU. The Sun Devils had all the answers late. And Arizona – surprisingly – lost its composure with turnovers.
“That’s winning time,” Lloyd said of the game’s final minutes (of every game). “We had a few unfortunate turnovers and maybe a couple of bad shots. Maybe a couple of guys, you’re playing in front of your home crowd and want to deliver a knockout punch and maybe you make a bad decision on the shot.”
And, well …. none of it worked.
Azuolas Tubelis? He finished with 17 points looked better than he had in the last couple of weeks. Still, he hasn’t been the same player he was prior to the last three weeks.
“I thought Zu was okay,” Lloyd said. “I thought offensively he was back. He just didn’t play great defense. That’s disappointing. I don’t care about overall stats. I’m gonna be honest, I never even looked at the overall stats. I couldn’t tell you what his shooting percentage is, how many points he’s scoring. But I know effort on defense, and he’s got to play better.”
Everyone does. If the last five minutes of games is “winning time” well March is for winners.
Arizona, considered a top 10 team and a possible No. 2 seed in next month’s tournament, continues to not play like it. It lollygags.
It plays with its food and then gets bored. Sometimes it doesn’t want the food and just is bored. Of course, it’s not like that throughout the entire game, but in crucial moments.
“I think we’re going to be a hungry team now,” Ramey said.
It took this to get them there?
In what should have been a walk-in-the-park in McKale turned out to be a disaster. Arizona – again – lollygagged. It fell behind in the first half, and didn’t play inspired.
The second half was much better … but clearly not enough.
This team with so much bite just a couple of months ago – a month ago – is playing like its too good for all this or just isn’t good enough. It’s strange.
I made a similar observation five years ago when Arizona fell to UCLA at home in 2018 with the likes of DeAndre Ayton, Alonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins. It lacked something then, but was able to right things all the way to the NCAA tournament – until it got crushed by Buffalo in the NCAA’s first round. Something was amiss then.
I’m not saying something like that will happen again – because this team is better equipped than that one (mentally) – but something is amiss. And yes, they’ve won a lot – and in big fashion at times – but it’s not playing like it can. It needs to be inspired … and it just isn’t.
It shouldn’t have come down to a last-second shot. Heck, UA was a 12-point favorite, yet played like it was the underdog.
On Senior Day, no less. In McKale Center, no less.
Tommy Lloyd’s goodwill effort to start rarely used seniors – Matthew Long and Jordin Mains – wasn’t the issue. It was the 36 minutes after. Arizona didn’t play like there was an urgency. It played with its hair on fire when, well, its hair was on fire … the final moments of the game-that-got-away.
“I’ve already moved on; They better have moved on, too,” Lloyd said when asked about what he tells the players moving forward. “Maybe (the game) impacts things a little bit here (Pac-12) and there (NCAA tournament), but not enough to matter. So, let’s get better. This team, we’ve been playing pretty well. It was just a crazy game, a rival game against a talented team. Like I said, I don’t know what the odds are on that shot going in, but I think we’re probably like 98 times out of 100, we’re probably here talking about a different thing, but it was just one of those two- or three-percent chances. Good for the kid. That’s a heck of a shot.”
Now, Arizona needs to re-find its shot in the arm.