Remember when the Arizona Wildcats were 4-0 in the Pac-12, sitting at 13-4 overall and making many wonder if all that talk of a down season was just sandbagging? Yeah, those were good times.
A day later, sophomore wing Emmanuel Akot decided to leave the program, triggering a series of unfortunate events for Arizona that has included injuries to the Wildcats’ two most important players and what’s now the longest losing streak in 36 years.
Sunday’s 67-60 loss at Colorado was Arizona’s seventh straight, with five of those coming on the road. The Wildcats were dominant away from home in Pac-12 play in Sean Miller’s first nine seasons, going 50-31, but unless they manage at least a split of the Oregon trip in two weeks they’ll finish with their worst league road record since going 2-7 in 2008-09.
If only playing poorly on the road was Arizona’s biggest issue. It might not even be in the top five.
There is some good news on its way, however: the next opponent is Cal, which is 0-13 in Pac-12 play and has lost 14 in a row by an average of 13.7 points. That includes when Arizona won 87-65 in Berkeley on Jan. 12, the second-to-last time the Wildcats were on the winning side.
Before we look ahead to what might be Arizona’s only real winnable game left this season, let’s deal with these last two ugly games and what developments came from the Rocky Mountain trip.
Forcing turnovers is Arizona’s only effective defense
Colorado committed 15 turnovers on Sunday, the 14th time this season Arizona has forced at least that many giveaways. Yet the Buffaloes averaged 1.175 points per possession thanks to 55.8 percent shooting.
In other words, the Buffs scored on 30 of 42 possessions that didn’t end in a turnover. That’s after Utah shot 50 percent on Thursday and averaged 1.2 PPP.
Five of Arizona’s last six opponents have shot at least 50 percent, and in Pac-12 play the Wildcats are allowing 48.5 percent shooting. For the season they give up 45.3 percent shooting, which would be their worst defensive rate since 2005-06.
And you thought Arizona’s offense was historically bad. At least that’s been the case all year, while the defensive lapses have been a snowball effect.
There’s no paint presence
Chase Jeter may be the most non-physical center in college basketball, and this has only become more evident since he returned from his back injury.
Jeter had 10 points and eight rebounds against Colorado, this after going for 8 and 6 against Utah. He was a combined 8 of 18 from the field, nearly all of his misses on layups or a variety of hook-type shots where rather than trying to draw contact he looked downright scared to get bumped. That can’t just be because he’s not a great free throw shooter.
Jeter’s defense has also become a liability, either because he fouls too often or because he’s purposely trying not to foul and thus giving up too much room.
Ira Lee has become Arizona’s most effective player down low, but he’s even more foul-prone. The only other frontcourt option is Ryan Luther, who has proven that he needs to stay as far away from the paint as possible, on both ends of the court.
The Pac-12 tournament may have a lot of empty seats
If you happened to be watching Sunday’s game at Colorado—or, more likely, flipping over during NBA All-Star Game commercial breaks—you probably noticed a rather sparse crowd at the CU Events Center. That’s not something Arizona is used to when playing on the road in the Pac-12.
The announced attendance of 7,899 was 1,600+ more than the crowd for Colorado’s win over ASU on Wednesday but nearly 800 fewer than the Buffaloes had for a Feb. 2 game against Oregon. More than 8,500 fans were on hand for the Wildcats’ visit to Boulder last season.
Utah drew 11,478 for Arizona on Thursday, barely over 75 percent capacity at the Huntsman Center. Last year the crowd for Wildcats/Utes was 13,543.
What’s missing? The UA contingent that normally follows this team all over has been taking some trips off. And with Arizona looking more and more like a team that will be one-and-done at the Pac-12 tournament next month, it stands to reason that many of those traveling fans will stay home.
Anyone who’s been to Las Vegas since the tourney moved there is well aware of how huge a presence Arizona’s fans make, and their absence would be even more noticeable.