If you had a time machine on Wednesday morning and looked toward Friday night and saw the Arizona Wildcats playing the Purdue Boilermakers, you wouldn’t have been that surprised.
When Battle 4 Atlantis began, Purdue was considered the third-best team in the field. They could absolutely give Villanova a run for their money, pull off the upset, and meet Arizona in the championship round of the tournament. Because it’s safe to assume that that’s obviously where Arizona would be, right?
Wrong. Very wrong. About as wrong as an assumption can be.
Not only did Arizona not go to the Battle 4 Atlantis title game, they didn’t win a game in the Bahamas. They lost to NC State by six on Wednesday because they couldn’t stop anything. They lost to SMU by six on Thursday because they couldn’t hold onto the ball.
And in Friday night’s coup de grace, the Wildcats were run out of the gym by Purdue, 89-64.
There are so many questions that need to be asked and hopefully they will be answered in the coming weeks by this team and its coaching staff.
What we know right now: A perceived championship contender and No. 2-ranked team in the nation lost three times in three days, twice to unranked opponents and then got blown to smithereens by a ranked team that had lost two in a row themselves.
Here are three up and three down for Arizona’s disastrous Bahamas excursion:
If Arizona’s preseason expectations were a person, they went from a nice walk on the beach to suddenly stepping on piles of Legos. But on the bright side, the smoothest Lego of the bunch has been Deandre Ayton and his magnificent offensive game.
He’s the monster he’s been billed to be. In three games in his hometown, Ayton put up 27, 17 and 22 points consecutively and did it all on 62 percent shooting. He also drilled two 3-pointers.
His post game is so natural, his touch from the outside is pretty and he is flat-out ferocious when finishing at the rim. He is truly an NBA scout’s dream as a big man.
An underrated part of Ayton’s performances this week were the fact that he’s already being relied on to do so much and he’s answering the call. He’s already become the guy that Arizona asks to bail them out in tough offensive possessions when Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright can’t find anything. The default play-call right now is “Let Trier figure it out” with a backup plan of “Oh that didn’t work, give it to Ayton now.” He’s not playing like a freshman offensively. It’s a shame there wasn’t much help on Thursday and Friday to make him proud in his hometown.
This is likely a case of recency bias as Brandon Randolph failed to score a point in Wednesday and Thursday’s games, but on Friday night, Randolph was legitimately the second best Wildcat on the floor and the hope is obviously that it will carry over to the next few games.
Arizona is reeling right now so they have to take every positive they can get. Randolph, also a freshman, shouldn’t necessarily be counted on and certainly shouldn’t be expected to carry the burden that Ayton already carries. But it was a great sign that he was able to step up and knock down shots to try and pull Arizona back into a game that most thought was already out of reach.
Randolph was exposed defensively but we’ll talk about this team’s defense in another section. Bottom line is this freshman upped his aggression, knocked down 7-of-11 shots, was one of two Wildcats to hit a 3 against Purdue (the other being Ayton) and gave Arizona a glimmer of hope when hope was lost. Perhaps he can be counted on in the future when Arizona is struggling to get things going.
After the first three games of the season, Arizona’s depth was raved about. People even mentioned that the group could put something special together before Rawle Alkins was able to make it back to the floor.
Fast forward to now and Rawle Alkins’ stock is way up as every Wildcat fan clamors for his return.
Alkins’ defensive prowess and intensity is clearly missed and there just seems to be no sense of urgency at that end of the floor. Lazy closeouts, poor help, trying to block every shot instead of playing it correctly. The list goes on. If the last three nights showed anything, it’s that this squad could use some Savage Life.
Where to begin?
NC State carved Arizona up driving to the rim. SMU exposed Arizona’s transition defense. And then Purdue knocked down 11 3-pointers and shot 57 percent overall. That’s a good ole fashioned hat trick of disappointment.
While not wanting to make any excuses, much of Purdue’s shooting was just lights out. There were points in time where it seemed as if they couldn’t miss. But while their shooting was impressive, Arizona was blown out because of pure and simple laziness. It’s possible that after two straight days of disappointments, the Wildcats just didn’t have it in them on Friday night. But they were lackadaisical on closeouts and kept searching for a game-altering block that would send the ball into the stands, instead slapping at the air while the ball dropped through the net.
This tournament revealed a lot of holes defensively, even from Arizona’s best players. Not to sound like everyone you’ll hear on television but Sean Miller’s team defend. That has been the consistent trait of his teams at Arizona. This team, at least to this point, is not doing that.
Point guard play was a low-key concern entering the season. Parker Jackson-Cartwright has earned his spot and has gained tons of experience running the Arizona offense. But if there was a weak spot coming in, it was probably not having a game-changer at the point. In fact, in big moments, everyone expected Allonzo Trier to really be leaned on as the primary ballhandler.
That situation occurred this week where Trier was needed to step up as the point in big moments and PJC needed to fall back. It didn’t go well. Things fell apart when teams brought more intensity on defense, especially SMU’s defense which caused 20 Wildcat turnovers.
Arizona turned the ball over 39 times in three games in the Bahamas. They only had 37 assists. And on Wednesday and Thursday, when the games were on the line, the passing vanished, the ball stuck and the Wildcats’ offense folded due to defensive pressure. A lot of Arizona’s issues are fixable. But nobody should be sold this is one of those fixable problems.
Arizona in the polls
Unfortunately, this Arizona team could go down as the ultimate example of why there’s no point in doing preseason rankings. Preseason rankings are all hype and are purely based on reputation. The Wildcats had maybe more hype than any other team in the country coming into the season and climbed to No. 2 in the nation after wins over Northern Arizona, UMBC and Cal State Bakersfield — a lineup of real heavy hitters.
Following these three losses, not only does Arizona not deserve to be No. 2, they really shouldn’t be ranked at all. Not being ranked in late November doesn’t truly mean anything but it should serve as a wake-up call to a program that has national championship aspirations.
Losing three straight in the Bahamas doesn’t mean Arizona won’t win the Pac-12 or go to the Final Four or cut down the nets in San Antonio in April. The season has barely begun. But it does mean this: Regardless of reputation or the school name across their chests, this is not a good basketball team right now. And it needs to be figured out before it snowballs.