The Arizona Wildcats may have had effort and simply didn't play well. They might have been playing with a sense of urgency, so much so that it pressed them into forcing balls into places they shouldn't go.
The Wildcats fell 74-69 against the UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles, a game completely winnable considering the equal talent levels of the two squads. Yet, Arizona faded in all the places that were once question marks heading into this season so long ago.
Mark Lyons was the X-factor. Understanding basketball players stuck in their ways is hard, especially considering these athletes are hyper-competitive and ultra-confident -- and at times, rightfully so. But there's a reason Chris Mack must've signed off on Lyons' transfer. No matter being coached by a true point guard, Lyons isn't changing.
Do Wildcat fans yearn for Momo Jones?
After all, Jones was the scoring point guard who somehow led the Wildcats to an Elite Eight. Somehow, because he put his strong suits aside for the betterment of the team. At Iona, he's one of the nation's best scorers, but at Arizona, he ran the team by choosing points in time of when to score, but mostly he was attempting to run Sean Miller's offense.
Attempting doesn't appear to be what Lyons is doing. One game remains in the regular season, and he's still trying to get his team out of funks by ignoring, well, his team. He shot 5-of-15 on Saturday night and recorded one assist to go with five turnovers.
The Wildcats' offense wasn't so terrible, shooting 44 percent and hitting 10-of-22 three-pointers. Coincidentally, Arizona found itself trailing by 12 points with 12 minutes to play. But two three-pointers by Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom were assisted by backup point guard Jordin Mayes, whose underwhelming-appearing offense at the very least had a semblance of organization and flow. The ball didn't stick, especially in Mayes' hands.
Mayes scored eight points himself and defended UCLA guard Larry Drew II well, while Grant Jerrett poured in a team-high 14 points. He hit two consecutive threes to bring the game to a three-point UA deficit with less than two minutes to play. It wasn't meant to be.
Lyons wasn't only frustratingly bad on offense. His jawing at Drew came across poorly as Drew scored 14 points to go with nine assists, often rubbing Lyons off on screens. In fact, it was most perplexing how Lyons handled said screens. He once went under against Drew, a solid three-point shooter who doesn't look to take his shots all that often. Drained shot. Later, Lyons went over the screen with such poor effort to recover after the big man hedged out that Drew had another open three. Drained.
On another sequence Lyons even decided to switch the screen with Nick Johnson, who going across it ran into his teammate as Lyons pushed Johnson the other direction. With one more pass, Arizona's rotation -- because that side of the court had no other player to rotate -- ran out of bodies as Johnson stood confused and Lyons stood, well, probably thinking about cranking up another shot.
Solomon Hill also struggled, turning it over five times but doing his usual work across the board when he wasn't in foul trouble. Struggles have been part of Hill's game of late; but not perplexing mental lapses.
UCLA was led by its freshmen. Shabazz Muhammad scored 18, Kyle Anderson put up 17 and Jordan Adams grabbed six steals. The Bruins scored 11 points off turnovers, all in the first half. Arizona was still there, mostly because its own freshman played admirably.
Kaleb Tarczewski, with all his flaws, scored six points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He also had two blocks that keyed a brief UA run in the second half. Jerrett's stroke was crisp, and he was an effective defensive presence as well.
Mayes' play was the most hopeful for Arizona, as he controlled the tempo well, giving the Wildcats a flow and a calmness. Finding his individual offense also can't be overlooked, especially if Miller's leash with Lyons shortens, as it appeared to do at times in the second half.
When the Wildcats finally got close, Lyons fouled when there was more than a minute left and the game was only a two-possession difference. Then, with 24 second left and a three-point deficit, he burned a good 15 seconds off the clock before going for a two-pointer then missing in an ultimate failure of extending the game.
Now, it's an issue if Miller will continue to allow his senior point guard to error in such obvious ways. While public criticism isn't one of his motivational tactics, the rising confidence in Mayes at least being a viable option might be the thing to watch as Arizona faces ASU next week -- that ASU team is led by a freshman scoring point guard who, with a much less talented team, doesn't force the issue.
It's that time -- all of Arizona's worst fears appear to be very real. There's still time to turn it around, but it's no longer a matter of waiting for it to happen.