Under difficult circumstances, the Arizona Wildcats took the floor in Oregon on Saturday night. Despite a strong effort, the Wildcats fell to the Oregon Ducks in overtime, 98-93.
No Sean Miller on the sideline, an ineligible Allonzo Trier and a raucous Matthew Knight Arena crowd that heckled the Wildcats every chance they got was quite a mountain to climb. After what has been a difficult couple of days for the team, the fight they displayed is what is already a difficult place to play was admirable.
But a loss is a loss. It ends Arizona’s three-game win streak and brings them to 12-4 in Pac-12 play. They’ll have another chance at clinching at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season title on Thursday night back in the friendly confines of McKale Center against Stanford.
Let’s take a look at three up and three down from this Wildcat loss.
The eyes of the college basketball world were focused on Arizona, waiting for more news to trickle out about the status of Sean Miller and Deandre Ayton. It puts the other players in a rather uncomfortable situation, and it was a given that Arizona was coming into an enemy territory eager to see the Wildcats fall flat on their faces. All things considered, it was reasonable to expect the Wildcats to come out flat in Eugene.
Instead, Arizona responded in total opposite form, looking like a well-oiled machine for much of the first half. The ‘Cats immediately came out and took it to the Ducks, jumping out to a 12-point lead in the first half behind a phenomenal amount of energy from Ayton, Rawle Alkins and Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
Alkins’ energy, in particular, was infectious. He appeared determined to destroy everything in his wake and he did a pretty good job of it, totaling 24 points, five rebounds, five assists and a block.
He was part of an unfortunate turning point in overtime though, dunking on Ducks forward Kenny Wooten and receiving a technical foul for screaming at Wooten after the jam. Oregon made their two shots from the line and took off from there. Even with that incident though, it was that energy and attitude that kept Arizona in the game in the first place.
There’s no way of knowing what will happen in these next few days. But if we’re being honest, there’s a chance that Saturday night’s game with the Ducks will end up being Ayton’s last as a Wildcat.
Just in case it was, Ayton gave us a little something extra against Oregon, wrecking his way to 28 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks.
Those numbers are ridiculous, especially considering most of them came in the first 30 minutes. With 10 minutes remaining in the second half, Ayton had 26 points on 11-of-14 from the floor. In the final 10 minutes and the five-minute overtime, Ayton took only one more shot and scored two more points on free throws.
Oregon went to an automatic double-team the second he touched the ball for that final 15 minutes, making Arizona find other ways to win – which they didn’t.
Despite being bottled up for the last third of the game, Ayton was extraordinary. He played loose, he played angry and he played perhaps his best game at Arizona.
This could admittedly be premature. Two games remain in the regular season and as far as we know right now, the Pac-12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament are still on the table.
But if this was the last time we see Ayton, it doesn’t really seem fair to comment on what’s gone on behind the scenes because none of us really know. All we can really comment on is the basketball side and on that front, not only has it been special to see him go to work. He just might be the most talented to ever play in a Wildcat uniform.
Hopefully this isn’t it but if it is, it’s been fun.
A year ago, how weird is this reality? Romar on the Wildcats’ sideline as head coach. What a strange course of events it took to get us here.
But he deserves credit for some of what worked tonight. The offense was fast and loose and while that resulted in some turnovers, it also helped Arizona to 27 points in the first seven minutes of the game.
Romar faced as tough a spot as anyone on Saturday night and he handled it well, nearly guiding the Wildcats to a tough road win in very difficult circumstances.
If he ends up being the interim man in charge on Thursday against Stanford or Saturday against Cal, it’s a good sign to see the team feel instantly comfortable with his more free-wheeling offensive sets.
By far Arizona’s biggest negative of the night came in giveaways, losing the turnover battle 17-4.
Oregon’s full-court press certainly played a part but the pressure of the moment, the crowd and the lack of structure are as much to blame as anything else.
The person most responsible for the turnovers was, well, let’s go to the next “down.”
Life without Zo
Arizona needed overtime to beat Oregon State on Thursday night without Trier and fell apart down the stretch against the Ducks. It goes without saying that Arizona would have been better off with Trier on the floor.
The biggest evidence of this: the play of Dylan Smith.
Smith got the start in place of Trier and it’s important to mention that Smith did hit three triples against Oregon, including a deep one to knot things up at 83 with 15 seconds left in regulation and eventually send the game to OT.
But other than his shooting, Smith was a mess. He turned the ball over six times and it sincerely felt like more. He committed untimely fouls on the wrong guys and that’s when he was able to keep his man in front of him on defense.
Emmanuel Akot got 17 minutes and might be a solid option to start but he doesn’t offer much in the way of offense. Brandon Randolph has been quite inconsistent on both ends for the last couple of months after showing promise in December.
It’s unknown if there has been any progress on making Trier eligible. Frankly, that’s not even close to the top priority for the program at this point. But with him out, there’s a large gaping hole in the starting lineup that is impossible to replace.
There’s a lot that can happen between now and the next time the Wildcats take the floor. Saturday night felt odd – Romar running the show, Trier sitting on the bench, Bill Walton strangely staying on topic because the topic was Sean Miller and Deandre Ayton. The crazy part is Saturday night’s loss to Oregon could end up being the closest thing to normal that Wildcat fans see for quite some time.
Maybe nothing will be decided between now and Thursday, or even now and April. But that’s the thing – nobody knows anything. Chaos reigns supreme now and it could get ugly in Tucson fast.