The Arizona Wildcats (19-6, 9-3 Pac-12) were outclassed Thursday night, falling to the UCLA Bruins (17-7, 8-4) by a score of 82-74.
The loss hurts for numerous reasons — it sends Arizona to their first losing streak since the Bahamas trip, their first home loss of the season and their second consecutive defeat at the hands of the Bruins in McKale Center.
For the first time in more than two months, it will be difficult to find positives from an Arizona basketball game. The Wildcats started slow as they have done plenty in the last couple of months. The offense woke up to take a lead midway through the first half but the half ended as it began. The offense stalled and UCLA’s offense came alive, making their final eight shots of the half including six 3-pointers. UCLA finished the first half on a 14-3 run to take a 44-34 lead into the break.
It’s natural to expect the Wildcats to claw back from a double-digit deficit. They’ve done so multiple times in Pac-12 play. But they simply didn’t have it in them on Thursday night. They pulled within four a little more than four minutes into the second half but the Bruins answered that with back-to-back 3-pointers to bring the lead back to 10.
Arizona wouldn’t get it closer than seven after that.
With that, let’s try and find three up and have our pick of three down for the Wildcats’ disappointing home loss to UCLA.
While the defense hasn’t been good all season, the offense has been reliable for the Wildcats. The offense had a rare off-night on Thursday night but Trier still played well despite most of his teammates struggling mightily.
Trier finished with a team-high 17 points while shooting 7-of-13 from the floor. Zo kept things interesting late with a of couple of treys to keep the Wildcats within striking distance. Trier would end up hitting 3-of-6 from beyond the arc.
It was a mostly forgetful performance from the Wildcats but Trier remained aggressive throughout which was a huge thing to see from one of Arizona’s leaders.
A major weakness of UCLA’s has been surrendering offensive boards to opponents and the Wildcats were able to take advantage of that, pulling down 11 in the loss.
The offense didn’t shoot it near as well as we’ve come to expect from Arizona. They ended up shooting just below 44 percent from the field, their lowest percentage since their 62-53 win over Oregon State back on Jan. 11 when they shot 42 percent.
But despite the tough shooting night, their ability to get into the right spots for offensive rebounds and get second chance points kept Arizona in the game. Without crashing the glass at the offensive end, this one could have easily been a blowout.
Shake it off
Losing is far from a good thing but I think it’s a positive that Arizona has a quick turnaround, locking up with the USC Trojans on Saturday.
This gives the Wildcats a chance to move on and forget a bad performance against UCLA as they instantly need to think about USC coming to town. Having the ability to just leave this one behind is likely to help against the Trojans.
And while a home loss is rare in Tucson, back-to-back home losses is unthinkable. Arizona hasn’t lost two straight in McKale since February of 2010.
Everyone but Allonzo Trier
That’s not particularly fair. Dusan Ristic was fine, just quieter than we’ve seen him lately, finishing with 11 points and seven boards. Parker Jackson-Cartwright has had worse games as he logged 10 points and four assists.
The bench wasn’t all bad. Dylan Smith hit two of Arizona’s eight 3-pointers and Keanu Pinder had some productive minutes.
Unfortunately, this is mostly about the play of Deandre Ayton and Rawle Alkins.
Ayton wasn’t his dominant self against the Bruins though he totaled 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. Ayton had a lot of trouble scoring — both his mid-range shot and his ability to finish around the rim weren’t quite there. He ended up shooting just 7-of-19 from the floor and strangely found himself stifled and outmuscled by the Bruins’ bigs a number of times at the rim.
Ayton wasn’t what we’ve come to expect but he still had his moments. Alkins, on the other hand, looked like he didn’t belong.
It’s unclear if he was effected by the injury that had him sitting two weeks ago but Rawle struggled to do much of anything on Thursday night. He scored five points on 2-of-9 shooting and added four rebounds, three assists and a steal.
He had trouble handling the ball, shooting the ball, driving to the rim and even staying in front of his man at the defensive end. While it may have just been a bad game, Alkins looked lost at times so one has to wonder if he’s truly at 100 percent right now.
It’s tough to harp on Alkins’ ability to stay in front of his man considering nobody on the Wildcats could stop UCLA on Thursday night. The expectations are a bit higher for Alkins because he’s shown defensive competence unlike the team as a whole to this point of the season.
The defense was horrendous tonight as UCLA got just about everything they wanted, especially from deep where they made 11-of-24 on 3-pointers. Arizona was so desperate to come up with a way to stop UCLA that they switched to a zone in the second half. It fared just like every other defensive set — miserably.
After tonight’s loss, Arizona has fallen to 110th in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. That would make them the worst defensive team under Sean Miller. The Wildcats have ranked in at least the top 40 in defensive efficiency every year since 2012.
Sean Miller has said it himself — the gap between an Arizona team’s offense and defense has never been greater than it is right now.
For reference, the lowest-ranked defensive team to win a national championship since KenPom started tracking advanced stats in 2002 was the 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels. They were ranked 18th in defensive efficiency. With Arizona currently ranked 110th in February, it feels far too late to turn things around and accomplish the lofty goals that were set back in November.
With a pair of big men that have the offensive prowess of Ayton and Ristic, feeding them the ball is extraordinarily important. Arizona’s well-documented struggles against zone defenses lead to nearly every opponent giving a zone look at some point during the game. When that happens, smart, crisp entry passes to the bigs are extremely important.
PJC hasn’t shown the ability to make those passes for much of the season and tonight was a major example of that. Whether it was a bounce pass too low, a refusal to pass or just throwing the ball in the air and hoping a Wildcat brings it down, it was ugly against UCLA.
Not only was their difficulty in getting the ball to the big men but when they did catch the ball inside, it often wasn’t in a position to succeed. Lofting the ball as high as possible where Ayton has to use his freakish athleticism to jump up and pull the ball down isn’t putting Ayton in an optimal position to score. In fairness to Jackson-Cartwright, other players on the perimeter haven’t done any better in trying to get the ball inside.
That’s why so often against opposing zone defenses, you see a big come up to the free throw line and catch a pass there. It’s the only way the Wildcats know how to get the ball in the hands of Ristic or Ayton against a difficult defense.
There are only six games remaining in the regular season. Then the pressure turns up immensely. Before the lights are on bright, can Arizona figure out a way to accurately feed the ball inside no matter what the defense looks like? Or is this another weakness that it’s just too late to fix?