The currently unranked Arizona Wildcats found themselves in an unfamiliar position on Tuesday night. They were the underdog, and they walked into Talking Stick Resort Arena to take on the undefeated 7th-ranked Texas A&M Aggies knowing they’d be in for a fight.
Eight ties and 15 lead changes later, it certainly felt like an old-school 12-round heavyweight fight and when the bell sounded, it was the Wildcats’ hand being raised.
A chaotic free-throw filled final minute gave Arizona chances to put Texas A&M away just as it gave A&M chances to steal one right from under the nose of Arizona. The Wildcats escaped with a 67-64 victory as Robert Williams’ last-second half court heave bounced off the backboard.
This was a massive victory for Arizona (6-3) which is still trying to climb out of the hole they dug themselves into in the Bahamas two weeks ago. But not everything was perfect in this marquee victory. Let’s take a look at three up and three down from this Wildcat win.
This was easily Smith’s finest performance as a Wildcat. He was one of four Wildcats to lead the team with 13 points along with Deandre Ayton, Dusan Ristic and Brandon Randolph.
Smith kept Arizona alive in the first half, knocking down three treys and hitting 4-of-5 from the floor overall. He had 11 points at the half and along with Ayton, really kept the Wildcats within striking distance of A&M and only trailed by 2 at the break.
Smith’s defense also appeared to be improved in his 18 minutes on the floor and he even came in and made two clutch free throws in the final seconds to seal the victory.
Performing this well against Arizona’s toughest opponent to date is a nice step in Smith’s development as a Wildcat.
While Arizona only had four steals, their defensive intensity was clearly higher on Tuesday night, causing 11 A&M turnovers.
The thing that hurt Arizona in their three losses this season was lazy closeouts on 3-pointers and poor help defense. The poor help, namely on the interior is still a major issue but we’ll get into that later. On the perimeter, everyone was closing out, forcing bad shots and displaying great footwork. Arizona’s defense has to step up for them to take a step toward being the team they were expected to be in the preseason. Tonight was a step in the right direction.
To this point, the Wildcats didn’t have a win over a team from a Power-Five conference, despite multiple chances. Finally on Tuesday night, they got a big win.
Throughout the night, Bill Walton said that Texas A&M was in fact the better team and they were playing like it. Even when Arizona had the lead, it felt incidental. Right or wrong about who was better on Tuesday night, Walton is right when he says A&M is a very good team. They could very well end up being the best team in the SEC.
Though the game might as well have been at home, when the committee is deliberating things on Selection Sunday, Arizona beating the best team in the SEC on a “neutral” floor will be a big deal. With the Pac-12 taking hit after hit during the non-conference season, it’s a necessity that the Wildcats get this win with not many marquee victory opportunities remaining.
Speaking of things Bill Walton said during tonight’s telecast, he referred to Texas A&M’s center Tyler Davis as “the best player on the floor.”
Does he know who Deandre Ayton is? Of course he does, he’s a player from the Conference of Champions. Surely Bill jests, right?
No. He doesn’t. And he wasn’t wrong either. Davis scored 21 points on 9-of-12 from the floor and treated Arizona’s big men to a show in the post. Davis’ low-block spin move made the Wildcats’ look like glitching video game characters on more than one occasion.
So Walton was right, Davis was the best player out there. And Arizona made him look that way. This was the second straight game that Arizona was tortured by the opposing team’s big man. No disrespect to Tyler Davis, he’s a smooth player with legitimate skill down low but Arizona’s weakness on the defensive end is brutal and needs to be figured out as soon as possible.
Before we get into why Trier is in the “Down” section for this game, he should be commended for his passing in the second half as he found two guys wide open for 3-pointers down the stretch. He should also be commended for taking a step back late in the game and realizing it wasn’t his night. A concern for Arizona coming into the season is whether or not Trier would know when to be the hero and when not.
All that said, in a game against this level of opponent, Arizona needs more from Trier in terms of scoring. He finished with seven points on 2-of-7 from the floor, 1-of-6 from beyond the arc.
Bad shooting nights just are what they are. Players far better and far worse know what it’s like to go cold. The issue though is Trier’s settling to shoot 3s and not forcing his way to the line. One of Trier’s best traits is his ability to get to the rim and at the very least earn shots from the charity stripe. In big moments like these, that aggression would help Arizona out in a big way.
Three separate times on Tuesday night, there was a three-minute period where the Wildcats turned it over three times. That’s a lot of threes but what it really means: In terms of Arizona’s sloppy moments, when it rains, it pours.
There are teams that can bury Arizona for a run of mistakes. We’ve seen that the margin of error for this team is relatively slim. And a team full of freshmen, they could very well figure out this issue with experience. Either way, they can’t let these things happen on the road in conference play, which starts in just three and a half weeks.