The Arizona Wildcats hosted the Fresno State Bulldogs on Wednesday night in McKale Center, with the Wildcats hoping to continue the positive momentum built after a big road win against the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Fresno State had no interest in rolling over and playing dead, and it made for a much closer game than most Arizona fans wanted to see. In the end, the Wildcats had just enough in the tank to keep the McKale winning streak alive, pulling away from the Bulldogs late in an 85 - 72 victory.
After game nine, we're starting to put the pieces together on who this team is and what they're capable of. Here's what we learned from this game.
1. Free Throws Aren't Free
After Arizona's earlier win against Bradley, I said that getting to the free throw line was crucial to the Wildcats' success. This only works when you make the free throws. Arizona followed through on getting to the line, attempting 28 shots from the charity stripe to just nine for Fresno State, but the Wildcats only made 17 of those attempts for a 60.7% clip. Dusan Ristic had a particularly rough night, missing all five of his attempts. Luckily for Arizona, this was still good enough to outscore the Bulldogs from the line by 12. To have any kind of success, that percentage has to get better as the Wildcats enter conference play.
2. Statistics Aren't Real
Your own AZ Desert Swarm posted an article this week providing stats that showed Arizona to be the fifth-rated defense in the nation. I'll admit, the data was surprising; having watched the Wildcats seem susceptible on the defensive end of the court all year, I was hesitant to concede Arizona was still an elite defense. But the data was right there, and the stats don't lie.
The stats lied.
To be fair, the defensive woes were mostly evident for the entire first half and the early parts of the second. But also in fairness, that's most of the game. Fresno State shot 63% from the field (including a ridiculous 100% from beyond the arc) in the first half, scoring 46 points. This tied their season high for a half, which they also accomplished against the vaunted Lamar Cardinals. Marvelle Harris had 17 first half points for the Bulldogs, which led all scorers, and would go on to finish the game with 23 points on 10-21 shooting. Arizona consistently lost the battle underneath the basket on the defensive end of the court, yielding 14 offensive rebounds. Transition defense was again a problem, especially early in the half, when Fresno State capitalized on a number of Arizona turnovers to create easy baskets.
At the end of the day, the stats will show that Arizona held Fresno State close to their averages in shooting percentage (47% surrendered vs. 41% average), points scored (72 vs. 76), and forced more turnovers than the Bulldogs normally give up (13 vs. 12), but watching that game makes it clear that the stats are lying. Arizona still has glaring defensive issues that they need to shore up much earlier in games instead of waiting until after halftime to settle in.
3. Trier Is Here
Allonzo Trier is staking his claim as the best player on this roster. While Ryan Anderson did enjoy what appeared to be his own personal dunk contest for most of the evening, Trier was the guy who made the entire offense go. The career-best 27 points obviously jump off the stat sheet, but what was most impressive was how he collected those baskets. He was unstoppable driving the lane. He was on fire from beyond the arc. His mid-range jumper was on point. He went 8-10 from the free throw line. Combine this with six rebounds and only one turnover, and you have a second-straight breakout performance by a freshman who is playing beyond his years. Especially with the late injury to Kadeem Allen (which looked none too promising for a quick return), Arizona will lean heavily on Trier going forward. He's proved he's ready to shoulder that load.
Side note: I tried combining "Allonzo" and "Zona" to create a nickname for Trier, but there's got to be something that rolls off the tongue more easily than "AllonZona." I'm open to other suggestions.
All in all, there was a lot to like about this win. The offense played incredibly well all game (if you don't look at the free throw situation), the defense made plays late when the outcome was still up in the air, timely shooting from Gabe York once again swung the pendulum in Arizona's favor, and the winning streak at McKale Center continues.
If Arizona can clean up the issues on defense and take advantage of free points, this team has a chance to be very good. The transformation from a group of individuals into a cohesive unit is coming about more each game, and that bodes well heading into conference play.