If there was one theme in all three of the Arizona Wildcats' losses this season, it'd be that many things have to go wrong for them to lose.
In a 77-89 loss to the California Golden Bears on Sunday, it was better described as everything that went right for coach Mike Montgomery's team. More precisely, it's what Allen Crabbe did right. The lengthy 2-guard was too lanky and too good for even Nick Johnson to bother, scoring 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting from the floor.
Crabbe added five assists and seven rebounds, and backcourt mate Justin Cobbs poured in 21 points of his own on 8-of-14 shooting -- those two players helped the Golden Bears to an evening of 58.8 percent shooting.
On the list of things going poorly for the Wildcats included their free throw shooting, as they made 16-of-24 foul shots. Those eight points left on the board were the difference. It didn't help that Arizona shot 39.3 percent from the field altogether, and that was a testament to Montgomery's insistance on playing an effective zone.
The zone has long been a testy opponent for UA coach Sean Miller, but his teams have always worked themselves out of facing them either by hot three-point shooting or adept interior passing. That didn't happen on Sunday.
Outside of Brandon Ashley's 12 points and 10 rebounds, the Arizona big men couldn't score against the zone.
Arizona led 28-19 just under the six-minute mark of the game, but Cal didn't allow the Wildcats to separate, finishing the half with a forced turnover on a four-point swing to trail 38-33. The Golden Bears opened the second half with a zone and a 17-2 run against a Wildcats team that looked sluggish, failing to attack the California defense. At that point, Cal led 50-40 and after the first TV timeout of the second half, Grant Jerrett, who returned after missing Wednesday's game against Stanford, hit a three-pointer in a nice drawn-up play to twist Montgomery's arm in pulling the zone.
He didn't, and Cal's success continued. Even zone buster Kevin Parrom -- initiating the offense in the middle of the floor -- had three turnovers in the thick of the Golden Bears' defense.
Solomon Hill showed assertiveness throughout, but he struggled in hitting 4-of-12 shots for 13 points. Mark Lyons reverted back to hero-ball point-guarding, leading UA with 16 points on 5-of-14 shooting. At one more crucial point, Lyons was pulled in favor of Johnson at the point. That worked well for a bit, and Johnson had six assists and no turnovers on the day.
Yet, it wasn't enough against Crabbe, who looked like Kobe Bryant in facing the shorter Johnson, pump-faking atop the three-point line and releasing it with Johnson's hand in his face. Perhaps the only thing more the Wildcats could do against Crabbe would be to throw a double-team at the junior guard; that's not quite up Miller's alley.
So against a hot scorer, a tricky defense and having poor foul shooting, Arizona fell.
While lackadaisical play could be an issue, the culmination of the Wildcats' own stars struggling in comparison to Crabbe and Co. hurt. But it's hard to exactly argue UA was looking sloppy or bad. Arizona only had nine turnovers on the night, and they had nine steals. Cal, however, only had 13 total turnovers, a sign that at worst they were losing the ball because of good Arizona defense and rarely by their own mistakes. As a team, Arizona had 19 three-point attempts and made nine -- not bad at all.
And when many times the offense looked like the ball was sticking, it was because Cal went against its typical play to surprise the Wildcats' scouting department.
Arizona played good enough to win. Cal played good enough to pick up a confidence-building win in McKale.