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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to Gonzaga

Gonzaga v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats suffered their second loss of the season Saturday, falling to the No. 6 Gonzaga Bulldogs 84-80 in McKale Center.

Our full recap can be read here, Sean Miller’s postgame comments can be found here, and below are some additional takeaways.

Arizona got outcoached

Knowing that Gonzaga is loaded with big, physical frontcourt players, Sean Miller said rebounding was the key heading into Saturday’s game.

So he was just surprised as anyone that the Bulldogs ditched their usual two-big setup to go small and put 6-foot-7 Corey Kispert at the 4, a move Miller thought allowed the Bulldogs to break the game open in the second half when they led by as many as 16.

Kispert and fellow big man Filip Petrusev each had 11 second-half points and Gonzaga shot 50 percent as a team—and still outrebounded the Wildcats 21-18 in the second half after being outrebounded 26-22 in the first half.

“They didn’t really play how they usually do,” Miller said. “They were smaller for longer periods of time and when they played Kispert at the 4, it really changes a lot and forced us to go smaller. We’re just not as advanced or ready with that group as they are. I wish we were. That’s not the only reason that the game went towards Gonzaga, but it is part of the reason. That lineup right there, it just got us out of rhythm.”

Miller also noted that Gonzaga deploying Killian Tillie at the 5 created matchup issues because of his ability to step out and shoot 3s. It pretty much made Christian Koloko, who had been emerging as a strong interior presence, unplayable. He played one minute.

“I just wish we were better and more equipped to deal with what they do and what they did,” Miller said. “Once they started shifting between small and big and we got out of sorts, we gave up passes to the roller and a couple of dunks, which in the first 20 minutes you didn’t see that as much.”

Another adjustment by Gonzaga coach Mark Few that paid dividends: switching to a zone defense for parts of the second half. Miller, and UA players, seemed surprised by that too.

“When you change defenses right now against us we’re inexperienced against that,” Miller said. “We just gotta really take our time. If you just stay a little bit longer with it, you can get a good look. We did create a couple good looks against the zone, we just didn’t make them. We’re a difficult team to zone when you think about our personnel, but I don’t blame Gonzaga for trying it because we were shooting so poorly that just mixing that in made a lot of sense. And, among many things, it worked.”

Another tough opponent, another poor shooting night

The Wildcats have played two good teams this year and both times they struggled mightily to make jump shots.

Arizona shot 27 percent in the loss to Baylor and 38 percent against Gonzaga. The Wildcats only made 10 of their 48 (20.8%) 3-point attempts in those games, including an 8-for-30 mark against Gonzaga, almost 20 percentage points lower than their season average.

Has the moment been too big for this young team? Did it just have two bad games? Is Arizona simply not as good of a shooting team as its percentages indicate? Is the defense deserving of credit? It’s likely a combination of all four.

“We just didn’t shoot the ball like we’re capable,” Miller said after the Gonzaga game. “Maybe some of it was we need to execute better, but we also had a couple good ones. And when you get good looks in a big game like they did, you gotta knock them in. And when you don’t do that, you have to win another way. It puts pressure on the defense and we weren’t able to defend them at an astronomical level to offset our shooting.”

Nico struggles against ranked team. Again.

Nico Mannion, more than anybody, has contributed to Arizona’s shooting woes in its two losses. The freshman shot a combined 6 for 34 against Baylor and Gonzaga. Mannion went 3 for 20 against the Bulldogs, clanking shots at all three levels, though some barely rimmed out. Many were good looks.

It just so happens that both of Mannion’s poor shooting nights came after he suffered back spasms in the Wooden Legacy, though Miller was not willing to use that as an excuse. Nor does he think Mannion is lacking confidence.

“He’s healthy,” Miller said. “He definitely had an off night. I know this just because I watched closely. He had a lot of shots that he’s gonna make, that he’s already made, but didn’t go down tonight. For a young guy, he shouldn’t shoulder the blame of this loss.”

Miller pointed out that Mannion still managed to tally 10 assists against Gonzaga, his second straight game with double-digit assists.

While those are gaudy numbers, they do highlight one of the flaws in Arizona’s roster—it lacks secondary creators. Mannion accounted for 10 of Arizona’s 17 assists against Gonzaga (while still taking 20 shots!) and had five of seven of the team’s assists in the loss to Baylor. Basically, if he isn’t initiating Arizona’s offense, no one is.

That is a lot to ask of a freshman but Mannion seems like the kind of player who can handle it. He certainly has the pedigree.

But so far Arizona’s two best opponents have found ways to slow him down. For Gonzaga, it was having Ryan Woolridge be physical with the freshman guard.

“Nico’s on the right track,” Miller said. “No one feels worse, I’m sure, than him. But there’s a lot of other guys, a lot of other things we could have done better. There’s a lot of things that I could have done better.”

Zeke has to get the ball in better spots

Miller lamented that freshman forward Zeke Nnaji was not more involved in Arizona’s offense. Sure, he had 16 points on 10 shots against Gonzaga, but the majority of those came via offensive rebounds, not in the flow of the offense.

“That’s not enough and that’s my responsibility,” Miller said.

Miller said Arizona has to be more “specific” on offense, doing a better job of getting the ball to its best players in spots from which they can do damage. Too many times Nnaji would catch the ball on the low block and immediately get doubled, causing him to pass out to the perimeter.

And on a night when jumpers weren’t falling, it played right into Gonzaga’s hands.

“One thing about offense in basketball, the more games you play, you recognize there’s some guys who are better than others,” Miller said. “Sometimes you live and die by the 3. We don’t need to do that right now. For us, we can drive the ball, we can get the ball to the low post and I look at Zeke, he had eight second shots, he took 10 shots. I’m gonna say only five or six of his field goal attempts came on its own doing.

“Now, Gonzaga is post trapping so you have to take that into consideration. It’s not that Zeke didn’t get it, but we have to be better at getting in the ball where they can’t trap him and that’s one of many regrets that I have about tonight. When we really needed to be able to do that we couldn’t do it and that hurt us.”

The good news is that Nnaji, who also had 16 rebounds, played with the kind of fury he had shown earlier in the season but had fizzled in the past few games. He set the tone from the opening tip by aggressively crashing the offensive boards and letting out a primal scream and fist pump anytime he made a putback or drew a foul. It was contagious.

“We talked to him a little bit last couple weeks, he wasn’t playing with that reckless abandon or fire. Well, he returned back to form tonight,” Miller said. “I think that’s a really good sign for our team. I know we lost, but I want to make sure I point that out among the many things we could have done better. I thought he was just a monster out there.”

Free-throw shooting matters

Even though Arizona only lost by four, Miller said Gonzaga was a “10-, 15-point better team.”

He’s probably right but dismal free-throw shooting by the Zags allowed the Wildcats to make things interesting at the end, when they cut a 10-point deficit to two in the final minute.

Gonzaga went 17 for 30 from the line and five missed free throws in the final 55 seconds.

That was not that much of a surprise considering the Bulldogs entered the night as a 66-percent free-throw-shooting team, but there is still a lesson to be learned for everybody who was watching that game: you have to make your free throws.

Arizona is a good team, not a great team

Now that Arizona has fallen short against both ranked teams it has played—and in rather discouraging fashion—we can make a fair claim that this is a good team, not a great team.

It seems like every game presents a new flaw. First it was defense, then it was rebounding, and now it’s shooting.

There are at least a couple reasons to believe Arizona can right the ship as it enters its non-conference finale vs. St. John’s. One, the Wildcats were competitive in both losses even though they shot well below their season average.

Two, this team is still super talented and will be getting Stone Gettings back from injury soon. He should help correct some of those shooting woes.

But just because you have all the pieces to the puzzle doesn’t mean you know how to put them together. And Gonzaga showed the Wildcats still have ways to go in that regard.

“Where our team could end up and where we are today can be a much, much higher place just because we have a lot of things that we can grow and get better at,” Miller said. “It’s up to us to get there, though. It doesn’t mean just because we have a high ceiling we’re going to become that team.”