The Arizona Wildcats escaped with a narrow victory over the Stanford Cardinal on Wednesday, a game in which the Wildcats were favored to win by 14.
Arizona continued to showcase a familiar tune: an off-key first half, followed by enough harmonious stretches in the second half to escape the stage with a close win.
Those off-pitch moments have broken up what was such a beautiful symphony over the first half of Arizona’s season. They played their way through tough crowds, gliding through road victories over Cal and UCLA. Until five days ago, Arizona had won every true road game this season.
Those off-key stretches seem to last longer these days, though.
To be honest, they sound like nails on a chalk board to an Arizona program that creeps further away from 1997. The sound of Arizona’s flat performance against Stanford surely makes Sean Miller cringe as he creeps closer to another NCAA Tournament, and another opportunity to go where he has never been.
February rolls on, with eyes turning to March as the 2017 Final Four in Glendale begins to rise in the horizon, and Arizona’s lulls are starting to play a familiar sound that could delay a certain shining moment for yet another year.
In Pac-12 play, the Wildcats have put the nation and certainly their opponents on notice.
But along with the accolades and respect have comes a giant target on their back as Arizona heads for the finish line with just six games remaining on their conference slate.
Perhaps their toughest challenge awaits, with the California Golden Bears on their way to Tucson.
“Cal is a great basketball team. They’re playing really well,” Miller said. “And they’re the type of the team that will come in here and smash us all over the floor.”
What did we learn from the Stanford game? The Wildcats would be lucky to make it through their next six games unscathed.
Two of their trademark bad first halves have come against Washington and Washington State, who they still need to face on the road while managing the state’s two blossoming freshman Malachi Flynn and Markelle Fultz. Not to mention another date with UCLA, who haven’t forgotten Arizona putting 96 on them.
Let’s take a look at the numbers from Wednesday.
Dusan Ristic might be the Pac-12’s most improved player, but Arizona still needs more from him.
Ristic has increased his rebounding and scoring averages by 50 percent from last year, however, Ristic’s four-point outing on Wednesday was his lowest point total in his Arizona career in games in which he played at least 20 minutes.
The Wildcats’ offense cannot be predicated on jump shots, and at this point in Ristic’s career — and based on what this team has offensively — they absolutely need him to show up on the glass and in the scoring column every single night.
Four points and five rebounds in 26 minutes won’t cut it.
Kadeem Allen continues to disappear from distance.
Over the first 16 Arizona games, Kadeem Allen made 18 of his 35 3-point attempts, good for a Lauri-like 51 percent mark from 3.
Over Arizona’s last eight, though? Allen is 5-for-18, shooting just 27 percent from behind the arc.
Arizona is at their best when they can create havoc in the passing lanes defensively with their length, plus when they take away baseline drives with the size of Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier.
When they lose their rhythm defensively, Allen seems to lose his ability to score in transition, which is his best offensive asset.
Allen’s line against Stanford was a disappearing act altogether against Arizona, though at least he facilitated some offense.
Still, three points on two shot attempts isn’t going to be enough in March. His defensive efficiency is off the charts, but Arizona needs his offense too with so many freshmen receiving major minutes.
Arizona is a finesse team right now
Miller made it clear what he thought of Arizona’s physicality after the Stanford game.
“We have big guys that aren’t blocking out and it’s not about your offense. It’s about you have to hit your man in the chest. You gotta turn. You gotta keep people off the glass,” he said after Arizona allowed a whopping 17 second-chance points. “And the same thing with guards. Guards have a responsibility to rebound and when you let teams get 17 second-chance points, it really puts a lot of pressure on your ability to win.”
Being finesse doesn’t imply poor defense, which Arizona plays extremely well. This team is still very young, and while Kobi Simmons and Alkins haven’t played like freshmen, they still are finding their way and can be prone to a late defensive rotation or two, or an off quiet offensively as Trier finds his rhythm.
As Miller referred to in his postgame presser, this team needs more toughness and accountability when it comes to defense and rebounding.
When their jump shots aren't falling, they need a strong defense to fall back on to get stops and generate offense. But right now this group isn’t one that produces a consistent effort and toughness in transition defense or on the defensive glass.
This team seems to rise to the challenge for the big games, which is why they’re a good bet to bounce back against Cal at McKale Center on Saturday.
However, all of Arizona’s remaining games will be tough, filled with chances for the ‘Cats to slip.
Arizona needs to address some glaring issues over coming days if they hope to be the Pac-12’s top seed heading into the conference tournament in Vegas, even if Oregon did lose on Thursday night.