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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to St. John’s

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Arizona Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats ended non-conference play on a low note Saturday, falling to the St. John’s Red Storm 70-67 at the Chase Center in San Francisco.

Arizona will enter Jan. 4’s Pac-12 opener at Arizona State with a 10-3 record and losers of three of its last four.

Our full recap of the loss can be found here, and here are some additional takeaways.

In some ways, this loss was predictable

Leading up to this game, I wrote that it was easy to see a way St. John’s could pull off the upset.

“St. John’s is a really good offensive rebounding team and forces a lot of turnovers,” I said. “If it can get a sizable edge in either category, this game will go down to the wire.”

It turns out the Johnnies had the advantage in both categories.

St. John’s had trouble executing in the halfcourt—it didn’t help that its second leading scorer Mustapha Heron was out with an ankle injury—but its offense got a big boost by turning 13 UA turnovers into 17 points. The Red Storm bothered Arizona’s ball handlers with their ball pressure and quickness, leading to deflections and interceptions.

Combine that with a 13-6 edge on the offensive glass and St. John’s was able to attempt 12 more field goals than Arizona.

On a night when the Wildcats actually shot five percent better than their counterparts, it explains how the Red Storm, who shot just 35 percent overall and 28 percent in the second half, were able to hang on anyway.

“At halftime, I think we were getting seven percent of our misses,” said coach Sean Miller. “And the advantage, obviously, that we have is our size. I talked a lot about rebounding. They outrebounded us 40-35. They’ll be one of the smaller teams that we play all season long and yet they were the bigger, tougher team on the glass. They were getting 44 percent of their misses back at halftime. We had 10 turnovers at the half and they were the better team.”

Rebounding has been Arizona’s No. 1 issue this season and it hasn’t done anything in these last several games to show that it can be fixed. What has to be frustrating is that it’s not because of a lack of personnel but rather a lack of attention to detail.

Arizona still can’t shoot against good teams

All three of Arizona’s losses have featured some ghastly shooting woes.

Arizona went 13 for 64 (20.3%) from 3 in those games as opposed to 84 for 194 (43.3%) in its 10 wins. The Wildcats went 3 for 16 from beyond the arc against St. John’s.

Some were good looks that didn’t fall; others were rushed shots that should have never been taken. One play that stands out is when Nico Mannion came off a high ball screen early in the shot clock and clanked a 3 off the backboard.

Jemarl Baker Jr. air-balled an open corner 3 and later forced a tough, midrange fallaway jumper with Arizona down by five with 4:26 left. It, unsurprisingly, was off the mark.

“We shot insane shots,” Miller said. “We were shooting NBA 3s. And with the NBA line being on the court, we might have taken five or six NBA 3s. And that speaks to our lack of poise.”

Overall, Arizona has shot 53.5 percent in wins (mostly against bad teams) and 34.8 percent in losses. So while the Wildcats have the No. 12 offense in the country according to KenPom’s metrics, it’s hard to take that stat seriously knowing how poorly they have fared against quality teams.

Zeke Nnaji has to get more touches

You know how Arizona can remedy some of those struggles? Stop shooting so many long jumpers and start feeding Zeke Nnaji. The freshman forward had 24 points and 11 rebounds, upping his season field goal percentage to a nice 69.6 percent.

When he gets the ball anywhere near the rim, good things are usually going to happen, so the fact that he only had 10 shots in 37 minutes in this one was criminal.

Mannion had a chance to get Nnaji the ball on the final possession, perhaps for a mid-range jumper as the defense swarmed Mannion as he drove into the lane, but he opted to try the runner over a pair of defenders instead. It missed.

It seemed like a curious decision to force that shot but Mannion did convert a similar look at the buzzer to beat Pepperdine last month, so you can at least understand why the ball was in his hands.

Nico sorta got back on track

Mannion was streaky in this one. He made his first two shots, then missed nine of his next 10, before hitting a few jumpers before that last miss.

He wound up with 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting, missing four of five 3s. Not a great line, but still way better than the 6 for 34 he shot in the losses to Baylor and Gonzaga. Although one difference in this game is he did not distribute as well, finishing with three assists and two turnovers.

Mannion might not be Arizona’s best player—Nnaji is—but he is proving to be the most important, for better or worse.

Hey, at least some adjustments were made

Miller often gets criticized for not making adjustments, but there were some obvious ones in this one.

Arizona mixed in some zone defense and made pretty significant changes to its rotation in the second half, completely ditching Dylan Smith and Ira Lee for Baker and Christian Koloko.

Baker did some good things on defense but missed all five of his shot attempts. Koloko made things happen from the moment he checked in, immediately blocking two shots. Arizona outscored St. John’s 41-30 in the second half, so from that standpoint Miller’s changes worked.

He told reporters afterwards that Smith and Lee were benched for performance reasons and it will be interesting to see what the rotation looks like in the Pac-12 opener. Are these changes permanent or just a one-game thing? Arizona has used the same starting lineup all season but fell into an early double-digit hole against St. John’s just like it did at Baylor.

Smith had four turnovers and missed the only shot he took, a transition 3. Lee had three rebounds in six minutes but failed to box out several times too.

The most glaring instance was in transition when a St. John’s big man, trailing the play, was able to slam home a missed layup as Lee was caught ball-watching.

As for the zone, Miller said he could continue sprinkling that in to cure some of the fouling problems Arizona has had—St. John’s went to the line 34 times—but he has said that many times before in previous seasons and it has never caught on, so it’s one of those believe-it-when-you-see-it situations.

The seniors fell short

Arizona’s seniors let the underclassmen down. Of the 67 points Arizona scored, only eight came from fifth-year players Chase Jeter, Dylan Smith and Max Hazzard, who went 3 for 11 from the field.

Hazzard was almost a hero anyway when he drained a 3 with 1:23 left to give Arizona its first lead of the night, but those were his only points of the contest and St. John’s immediately answered with a layup on the other end to re-take the lead.

Jeter had one of his worst games as Wildcat with five points, three rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes on 2-of-6 shooting before fouling out. His tentativeness was one of the reasons the Red Storm were able to win the rebounding battle. He and Smith were the only starters to have negative plus-minuses.

Arizona misses Stone Gettings

Stone Gettings missed his fifth straight game with a concussion but he is expected back for the Pac-12 opener.

Arizona, 2-3 in his absence, can really use him. For one thing, Gettings gives Arizona more depth, allowing it to get more creative with its frontcourt pairings. Nnaji, for instance, could play more at the 5. That’s not much of an option when Lee, Jeter and Koloko—who typically roam near the basket—are the other bigs.

And, yes, Gettings’ shooting and spacing will help a lot too given how much the Wildcats have failed to hit from the perimeter lately.