This time last year, the Arizona Wildcats played the Santa Clara Broncos in the first round of one of these nifty regular season tournaments. Santa Clara gave Arizona all they could handle, but the Wildcats came away with a win, advancing to 5-0 on the season.
They would lose the following night, 69-65.
Though this year’s roster is vastly different, we’re looking at, eerily, the exact same result after last night’s loss to the Butler Bulldogs. Arizona, coming off a tough game against a ready Santa Clara team, lost on a neutral floor, 69-65, to bring their record to 5-1 for the second straight season.
The Las Vegas Invitational was never going to be easy. Squaring off with the guy that dropped a 40 spot on them last year, Jared Brownridge of Santa Clara. And then, having to play the winner of Butler-Vanderbilt the following night. But one can certainly make the argument that Wildcat fans should have expected a tournament win in a location that’s Arizona’s home away from home and entering the tourney as the eighth-ranked team in the nation.
So what went wrong? What went right? What should Arizona be weary of as the season wears on? Here are three things we learned from the Wildcats’ short Thanksgiving stay in Las Vegas:
ACCEPT KOBI’S INCONSISTENCIES
Kobi Simmons is a wild man on the basketball court. He’s so athletic and has shown so much confidence on the floor in his six games in an Arizona uniform. But, he can be a little out of control.
The bad side of this was seen late in the Butler game on Friday night. Down 66-63, Simmons held on to the ball beyond the three point line, appearing to wait for the offense to spread out. When nobody was moving, with 15 seconds left in the game, instead of being patient, Simmons launched a three with two Bulldogs defenders in his face. The shot grazed the rim.
Now, with Lauri Markkanen on the floor, this is a different story. He fouled out with 3:10 to go, and Arizona leading. With him, Arizona would have tried their best to run a pick-and-pop with Markkanen to try and tie the game. Or, at the very least, used Lauri as a decoy to get someone else open for a quick two or an open three. But the Simmons shot was clearly a bad decision. Part of this team’s success to this point has been centered around a great shot selection. That can’t vanish late in games the way it did Friday night.
You have to take the bad with the good. And with Kobi Simmons’ there’s far more good. When he gets going, he’s is flat-out electric.
His offense was huge against the Santa Clara Broncos on Thanksgiving, knocking down three three’s and a clutch step-back jumper to help separate themselves late. He finished with 14 points.
And, on Friday, while the shot that fell short and all but sealed the loss was tough, there’s no chance Arizona is in that position without Simmons.
Down nine with nine minutes to go, the Wildcats were in serious trouble. With Markkanen in foul trouble and turnovers piling up. Simmons put the team on his back and led the way on Arizona’s ensuing 15-2 run. He did it all: pickpocketing and finishing with breakaway dunks, catching alley-oops, or spinning into the lane and going off the glass. He put on a show.
Simmons scored 14 in each of the two games, doing it in completely different ways. In game one, he shot 5-7 and went 3-3 from deep. In game two, 0-3 from deep and shot a lot more, finishing 6-13. But the consistency with Simmons game from day one has been his energy, dynamic offense and willingness to take over when the game is on the line. No matter last night’s result, that is something you want to see from a freshman.
(BEGRUDGINGLY) ACCEPT REFEREE INCONSISTENCY, TOO
There’s a lot of complaining about last night’s officiating and, as someone that watched game, the complaining isn’t without merit.
There were multiple calls, especially late in the game, that were hard to understand.
At least three of the five fouls called on Lauri Markkanen were questionable, at best. There was also a very tough foul call on Kadeem Allen late in the game.
I hate to blame officiating because of one major unfortunate thing -- it’s bad more often than it’s good. College basketball officiating is rarely satisfactory. It’s tough to complain when you almost have to expect it.
The biggest takeaway regarding officiating from these past two days though is that Arizona may not see the same calls they’ve been getting, away from McKale Center.
Three of the Wildcats’ first four games of the season were played at home and Arizona had a massive free throw advantage in all the games. I’m not saying there’s been some home-cooking in McKale, but it’s a natural thing for referees to be effected by a home crowd.
Last night, Arizona didn’t get several calls around the basket that they’ve gotten this season. And on the defensive end, were called for multiple ticky-tack plays. It makes a huge difference in such a close ballgame.
Arizona needs to keep attacking the basket and forcing the issue, no matter what venue they’re playing in. But, based on what we saw last night, when Arizona gets the bad end of tough calls and fails to get to the line enough themselves, you can see it in the final score of the game.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing Arizona can do about bad officiating. Nothing anybody can do. It’s just a fact of college basketball life.
THE OTHER TEAM MADE MORE SHOTS
Well, duh, Arizona lost. But let me explain.
A concern all year long has been Arizona’s shooting and where to expect it from. Markkanen has been the team’s best shooter. Simmons is inconsistent from game-to-game, but when he’s on, he’s marveled. Rawle Alkins has shown some spot-up range.
But making jumpshots is a problem for this team. There’s no easy way to put it.
While it’s easy to blame officiating in a game so close, as I said, there’s nothing anyone can do about that. Plus, Butler played a great game and forced a ton of turnovers. But we can’t ignore that Butler’s shots went in, especially in those last three minutes, and Arizona’s didn’t. For the game, Arizona shot 3-11 from deep and Butler shot 6-15.
It’s been said all season long, a key to Arizona’s success is getting to the free throw line because that needs to be a big portion of their scoring. Well, when they lose the free throw battle, what happens then? And when the opposing defense decides to sit back in a zone, who’s going to break the zone with shooting?
When Markkanen is off the floor in foul trouble in a game like last night, who steps up and takes those shots? Who can be trusted?
When the opposing team is making their shots, Arizona has to manufacture points. Because, as people worried about in the preseason, when the shooting isn’t there, the Wildcats are in some trouble.