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5 takeaways from Arizona’s loss to UCLA

This team doesn’t seem to be headed in the right direction

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The 13th-ranked Arizona Wildcats lost 82-74 to the UCLA Bruins on Thursday in Tucson.

It is Arizona’s second loss in a row, falling to 19-6 overall and 9-3 in the Pac-12 play. It was also just Arizona’s third loss in its last 82 home games.

Our full recap can be found here and here are some other takeaways.

Alkins hasn’t been himself

When Arizona was struggling without Rawle Alkins early in the season, particularly defensively, Sean Miller said he knew Alkins would be “part of the solution” once he returned from foot surgery.

But Alkins has now played in 13 games and Miller’s claim hasn’t been true.

From a win-loss perspective, the Wildcats are 10-3 with Alkins and 6-3 without him. That is an improvement, sure, but when you look deeper, one can argue Arizona has actually regressed since Alkins rejoined the team.

The Wildcats’ defense is now as bad as it’s ever been under Miller. Arizona currently ranks 111th in the country on that end of the floor, per KenPom. The previous worst mark was 108th during the 2009-10 season, Miller’s first in the desert.

In the last two games — both losses — Arizona has surrendered offensive efficiencies of 118.0 and 116.7. The only time Arizona has fared worse this season? In the Bahamas.

Alkins’ toughness and athleticism on the perimeter was supposed to aid a team that struggles defending off the dribble but it hasn’t.

At least not yet.

Alkins has been in and out of games and practices the last few weeks because of foot soreness, so Miller is still hoping Alkins can find his groove in the last month of the season.

“In fairness to Rawle, it’s really a hard situation,” Miller said. “He missed 11 weeks, it was a long time ago. We got him back, started to pick up momentum in practice every day, and then he felt some soreness. If I track the amount of time he’s missed or sat out, even this week, practice one day not practice the next, it’s just very hard to be successful. And I’m sure that’s a big part of his struggles. But I believe in Rawle.”

Offensively, Alkins has mostly been solid, averaging 13.2 points per game on .452/.365/.741 shooting, but his last two games have been the worst of his career, posting offensive ratings of 62 and 52.

In the losses to Washington and UCLA, Alkins shot 4-of-20 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3, scoring a total of nine points. He had more turnovers (5) than assists (4), too.

Not very Rawle-like.

“Rawle will snap out of it,” Miller said. “He didn’t play well tonight but there were a lot of different players on our team who didn’t. But that has nothing to do with defense. Our defense is really the thing that concerns me the most.”

Arizona’s defense probably isn’t fixable

The reason Miller called Alkins “part of the solution” in the first place is because the rest of Arizona’s roster was/is incapable of defending at a high level.

The Wildcats’ effort has been questionable at times, but they simply don’t have the personnel to be a good defensive team anyway.

Their best offensive players — Allonzo Trier, Dusan Ristic, and even Deandre Ayton — just aren’t difference-makers on the other end of the court.

And there aren’t any defensive-minded players on the roster that can feasibly supplement them.

The result? A team that ranks 8th on offense (great!), but 111th on defense (very bad!).

“We’re a much better offensive team than defense,” Miller said. “That’s the truth. And I think the gap has never been bigger and it’s up to us to continue to work. We really worked very hard to address it and some of it is personnel. Some of it is you gotta be able to guard the ball, be able to move and think and play together and we’ve never been a great defensive unit early in the year. But as the year grows, playing against a team that is gifted as UCLA is on offense, it can really expose us and they did.”

UCLA, which shot 52 percent Thursday, is one of the few teams Arizona has played that can match its offensive firepower.

So when the Wildcats had an off night offensively (they shot 44 percent), they were vulnerable.

“Defense is will. Defensive is ability. I mean, we probably have a little bit of everything that makes us the team that we are defensively,” Miller said. “We’ve probably been spoiled in that we’ve had a number of teams — even the last two years — where we weren’t elite but we were very good and certainly strong enough to win games with our defense. When you’re team the constantly has to outscore the other team, this week that other team can outscore us and that’s really what happened tonight.”

It makes it easy to envision how Arizona will lose in the NCAA Tournament. One subpar offensive night and the Wildcats are toast.

It also makes it difficult to envision this team’s path to the Final Four. Can it really defend NCAA Tournament-caliber teams at a high level for two straight weekends?

I wouldn’t bet on it. Miller probably wouldn’t either.

“Right now we’re 9-3. We’re tied with USC for first place but it doesn’t feel that way because we’re really going down a different path with our effort and our defense,” he said.

(USC lost to ASU on Thursday, so Arizona actually still has a one-game lead.)

No, zone defense isn’t a realistic solution either

Arizona is never going to be a zone-heavy team under Miller, but folks have been calling for him to at least mix it in when the Wildcats are having trouble getting stops.

Miller warned that it would lead to open looks, and that is exactly what happened when they tried deploying it against UCLA.

“We tried different things, and any time we try to go out of our comfort zone, it may work for a short stint, but they’ll eventually pick that apart because your guys aren’t as good or confident even with something new,” Miller said.

“But I was in search of answers. Between switching ball screens across the board, to playing the 2-3 zone and mixing in a press. Anything to maybe spark a comeback, but we didn’t have it.”

UCLA ran a zone which may have led to Arizona’s down night offensively, but Miller wasn’t concerned about that.

“We scored 74 points,” he said. “We could have maybe done a few things better, but they shot 51 percent from the field, 11-for-24 from 3, 7-for-8 from the line and 10 turnovers.”

Miller then quipped: “Yeah, we could have been better against the zone.”

This is a bad time to struggle

The Pac-12 is weak, but Arizona is currently going through the toughest stretch the conference can offer — two games against the L.A. schools, then a road game at ASU, then a two-game road trip in Oregon.

The first-place Wildcats still hold a one-game lead over USC and UCLA, but that could vanish as soon as Saturday when the Trojans visit McKale. A week or two later, Arizona might even find itself in second or third place if its defense continues to scuffle.

“If we want to continue to win games, we’ve gotta fix it ASAP because it didn’t look good,” Ristic said. “We always talk about stats and stuff like that, but it didn’t look good today. And that was the main concern. Our aggressiveness level isn’t where it was supposed to be and we didn’t give 100 percent effort.

“A lot of times it comes down to our effort and our aggressiveness. Tonight we had a few good possessions that we didn’t finish all the way to the end, where they scored in the last four or five seconds (of the shot clock) or when we foul. Those are the small details that really hurt us a lot. We need to fix them as soon as possible.”

Arizona has lost multiple games in a row for the first time since the Bahamas debacle. Ristic said the Wildcats’ confidence may have dropped against UCLA, but said that is only a “short-term thing.”

“I think we’ll fix it. We have to fix it,” he said. “We don’t have a choice. We don’t have like 20 games left in the season.”

Arizona is close to being at its lowest point

Miller said Arizona’s home loss to UCLA “didn’t feel the same” as other losses during his tenure because of UCLA’s margin of victory.

“We’re not used to losing, but especially like that,” he said. “They had the game in hand.”

He is right. If not for a late, uncontested dunk by Ristic with a couple seconds left, Thursday’s loss would have been just the third home game a Miller-coached team has lost by 10 points or more.

It was also only the third time that seniors Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright have lost on their home court at all.

“Nobody’s happy right now. We don’t lose games at home like this,” Ristic said. “This is like Parker’s and mine third time we lost at home and it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Nobody’s happy and we have to bounce back ASAP.”

Indeed, but so does USC which, like Arizona, has lost two straight heading into Saturday’s matchup.

So Arizona will either keep sole possession of first place Saturday or surrender it and hit arguably its lowest point of the season.

“I think we need to answer the bell right now,” Ristic said. “If we don’t do it, it’s going to get ugly.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire