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What we learned from Arizona’s loss at USC

Arizona v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats turned in another clunker Thursday, falling to the USC Trojans 57-48 in Los Angeles, their lowest scoring total of the season.

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

Another awful shooting night showed this team’s true colors

In typical this-team fashion, the Wildcats posted a historically bad 3-point shooting night just when you thought they had turned the corner in that department.

Arizona shot 20 for 44 from 3 last weekend against the Oregon schools, only to follow it up by shooting 3 for 26 against USC, a dismal 11.5% conversion rate.

“Clearly we took a couple tough ones,” Miller said.

What is telling is that wasn’t even Arizona’s worst 3-point shooting performance of the season. (They shot 11.3% against Baylor.)

It reaffirms two things—this team is maddeningly inconsistent but, on most nights, a legitimately bad 3-point shooting team with very little sense of what a good shot is.

Since the start of conference play, Arizona is shooting 32.6% from 3.

“We have to move the ball more,” Ira Lee told reporters afterwards. “When we move the ball and set off ball screens, our offense looks beautiful. We went away from that tonight, and we will emphasize that for the UCLA game.”

Nico Mannion’s shooting keeps getting worse

One of the most disappointing things about this season has been Mannion’s cold shooting. It continued Thursday, with him going 3 for 14 from the field and 1 for 7 from 3.

That drops his season field-goal percentage to 38.8% and his 3-point percentage to 31.7%, numbers that fall well below the nation’s average.

What’s worse is that Mannion, contrary to what you’d think for most freshmen, has regressed as the season has gone on. Over his last seven games, he is shooting 28.8% from the field and 22% from 3.

As I’ve written before, that really becomes a problem when he is leading the team in shot attempts. At some point he either has to start making them or stop hoisting so many.

Arizona’s shooting woes handcuffed Zeke Nnaji

A residual effect of not being able to hit shots? Teams can double team and pack the paint without restraint.

At least that is Miller’s explanation for why Nnaji only took 10 2-point shots, even though it was clearly Arizona’s best source of offense.

“At the beginning of the game, USC elected to double team Zeke on low-post catches and really not rotate,” he said. “So that’s kind of like anytime the ball’s thrown in, just leave your man, double team and let’s see if they can make it.”

Once it became clear post-ups were going to be difficult, Nnaji was used as a screener. He did get some open looks when he popped for a mid-range jumper, but the paint was still congested when he rolled to the rim.

On one basket, he made it work anyway, catching the ball in the paint and using some nifty footwork to split a pair of defenders for a layup.

“Why don’t they do that more?” the ever-so-observant Bill Walton asked.

“That right there would have been our best bet,” Miller said, “but you have to be able to get the ball in and I thought we took a couple ill-advised shots instead of being able to get the ball in. And sometimes the player doesn’t do it on purpose, he’s just not a good passer.”

The defense has been sneaky good lately

Underscoring the offensive issues is that Arizona is 3-2 in its last five games despite holding its opponents to an offensive rating under 87 (an elite mark) in four of its last five games.

Since the start of conference play, Arizona has a 94.0 defensive rating, only trailing Stanford.

It leaves some hope that the Wildcats can be a great team if their offense finds some consistency. Until then, winning ugly is their best bet.

“For the most part, 25, 30 minutes, our defense was clearly good enough to win the game,” Miller said Thursday. “We just didn’t have any offense.”

It’s unclear when Green and Hazzard will return

Maybe things would have been different if Josh Green (back) and Max Hazzard (personal reasons) were available. Green might have been able to create some points in transition and Hazzard could have hit some perimeter shots.

We know Green won’t play Saturday at UCLA—he didn’t even travel with the team—but Hazzard’s status is murkier. It was odd seeing him on the bench but not playing, and Miller didn’t offer any clarity after the game.

“I don’t know. Personal reasons,” he told reporters at the Galen Center. “I can’t really say much beyond that.”

Green has a pretty lengthy injury history—he has undergone shoulder surgery twice, including last April—so it’s not outlandish to think his latest ailment, a sacroiliac joint sprain, could cause him to consider pulling the plug and shift his focus to the NBA Draft.

Green is a projected first-round pick and aggravating his back (or suffering any other kind of injury) could cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars if it becomes a red flag.

Green is ultra-competitive and doesn’t seem like someone who would bail on his team as the postseason nears, but it’s at least something to be mindful of.

The No. 4 seed is probably Arizona’s best-case scenario

If the season ended today, the Wildcats would be the No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, one spot short of earning a first-round bye.

At this point, the No. 4 seed is probably as good as it gets unless the Wildcats beat UCLA, which is looking increasingly unlikely given Arizona’s injuries and the fact the Bruins have won six straight.

Here is an updated look at the top half of the standings:

  1. Oregon (11-5)
  2. UCLA (11-5)
  3. ASU (10-5)
  4. Colorado (10-6)
  5. Arizona (9-6)
  6. USC (9-7)
  7. Stanford (8-7)

Assuming Arizona loses to UCLA but beats Washington and Washington State (the likest scenario in my opinion), the Wildcats would need Colorado to lose to Stanford or Utah on the road to clinch the 4-seed.

Totally plausible, given that the Buffaloes just lost to Cal by 14.

The emphasis on the NBA Draft was a bad touch

Seeing how poorly played this game was, it was amusing the majority of the first half consisted of ESPN analyst Mike Schmitz chopping it up about Arizona and USC’s NBA draft prospects and how they will translate to the next level.

But it aptly sums up what the upper levels of college basketball are about these days. Instead of the focus being on the game at hand—you know, one that had major Pac-12 title implications (and NCAA Tournament implications if you’re USC)—it was centered on what these players will do once their college careers are over.

That is a bad thing for the sport. It just propagates the idea that college basketball is a farm system for the NBA, not a sport that is (or at least used to be) special because of the tradition and connection these teams and players have to their universities.

Thursday’s game was hard to watch as it is, but it’s even harder to take in when the broadcast is essentially telling you that whatever happens on the court is secondary to the NBA Draft in June.

In fairness to ESPN, that’s what happens when prospects only go to college because they cannot enter the NBA out of high school. The one-and-done rule cannot be changed soon enough.