Sean Miller said he never felt better about this team than he did last weekend after it swept Washington and Washington State on the road, where it gritted out two wins on nights their shots weren’t falling.
But instead of building on that, it now looks like a fluke.
The Wildcats beat USC on Thursday but nearly blew a 20-point lead (again), failing to put together a 40-minute effort. They did not make a field goal in the final 8:20, missing all six shots during that span, and missed six free throws in the final two minutes, taking way too long ice the game.
On top of that, USC shot 54 percent in the second half, having its way in the paint as big men Nick Rakocevic and Onyeka Okongwu combined for 41 points on 22 shots.
Arizona initially looked up for the challenge against that physical frontcourt, outrebounding USC 21-14 in the first half (with nine offensive rebounds), but got outboarded 16-13 in the second half.
That allowed the Trojans to outscore Arizona 39-24 in the final 12 minutes, and make it a one-possession game when Jonah Mathews drilled a 3 with five seconds left.
It, almost, was a disaster.
“Tonight we obviously reverted,” Miller said. “We had a hard time practicing leading up to the game. I don’t think we had a great shootaround. Although we did a number of good things tonight, there were just too many moments where we reverted to a quick shot for no reason. Time, score, situation. (Not) playing hard-nosed, great effort defensively.”
Miller said the Wildcats need to learn from it, and in a weird way he almost resented the fact that they won Thursday.
“I think if we would have lost it probably would have allowed them to learn more,” he said. “It’s kind of like that jockey coming down the stretch. You gotta pick and choose, but you can only hit it so hard. With a team you have to pick and choose, sometimes the best way to learn is just failing. We’ve done that a number of times. We have a very young team, we have a group that has a lot to learn. We’re very fortunate to win tonight.”
Josh Green finally broke out of his slump
It had been a rough go of it for Green lately, as he entered Thursday 6 for his last 26 from the field and 1 of his last 8 from 3.
The freshman quickly snapped that slump Thursday, draining a 3 for the game’s first bucket and notching 12 of his 18 points in the first half on 5-of-6 shooting.
Green made two triples in the first half, which opened up the rest of his game. Not too long after his second 3, he pump-faked and drove baseline for a slam, the result of the defense having to respect his jumper.
He also had three steals and four rebounds, including one in traffic that sealed the win, and set the tone defensively for much of the night. Perhaps his No. 1 highlight was when he dove for a loose ball, wrestled it away from a Trojan, and dished it to Nico Mannion, who fired it ahead to Zeke Nnaji for a dunk that put Arizona up 20 with 12:55 left.
“It was great to see him play well,” Miller said of Green. “He really has practiced well and hard, and I think his heart is in the right place. It’s not easy when you struggle as a young player, but he’s really gone about things the right way. I was just happy to see him play how he played tonight. He really saved us, in large part, because of his own performance. I thought it bolstered our ability to score in getting 85 points. I’m not surprised at all the Josh played well, I really would have predicted that he would play well, because of how he’s approached these last probably 10 days. It’s really great to see a freshman kind of bounce back from from missing some shots. He was a big factor in our win tonight.”
Max Hazzard is in line for more minutes
Hazzard had his third scoreless outing in his last four games, but Miller said he needs to get the sharpshooter more minutes, the logic being that his microwave scoring tendencies are more likely to show up if he has a consistent role.
“If he plays 16 minutes, I think that gives them the best chance to be himself and then if he plays well, we can grow that,” Miller said. “It keeps us fresh. I think Max is just a phenomenal kid, his heart’s in the right place. I feel bad because he’s had a really good week of practice. We have to give him more of an opportunity. That’s going to come from this point on.”
Hey, at least this team takes care of the ball
The one thing this Arizona team continues to do so well is limit turnovers. The Wildcats posted their second straight game with six turnovers, now ranking 18th in the country and first in the Pac-12 in turnover percentage.
Only three Wildcats committed a turnover Thursday, Mannion being responsible for four of the six.
“It’s our greatest strength,” Miller said.
And on a night when they struggled to get stops, winning the turnover battle was a huge deal, especially since Arizona was lethal in transition, turning a dozen USC turnovers into 18 points.
“I think we’re a team that has some good decision-makers,” Mannion said. “We play well together.”
Jemarl Baker Jr. extended his turnover-less streak to five games. During that same stretch he has 19 assists, including four on Thursday that featured a couple no-look passes that resulted in dunks, as well as a precise outlet pass that led to a breakaway slam for Green.
Should free throw shooting be a concern?
Arizona missed 10 free throws in the second half, including six in the final two minutes, when Mannion missed four and Green and Dylan Smith each clanked one.
Miller said that was the least of his worries because Arizona still shot 70 percent for the game (28 for 40), only three points less than its season average, and that will “regain its form.”
But this has happened before. Dylan Smith notoriously missed some timely free throws in the losses at Oregon and Arizona State, and Stone Gettings did the same in the win at Washington.
“I think we just gotta work on that more as a team,” said Mannion, who went 12 for 18 from the stripe vs. USC. “I know I definitely need to work on it more myself. They all felt good but some nights shots don’t fall. So we’re going to be in the gym definitely working on those.”
Chase Jeter is out of the rotation for now
Jeter was the only big man to not play Thursday, so we can assume he is out of the rotation, even though he seems to be healthy.
“We’re playing nine players, it’s hard to play 10,” Miller said. “That’s not to say Chase won’t get the opportunity but we played the guys that we thought gave us the best chance here tonight. He’s missed a lot of time.”
And then there were three...
There are now only three Pac-12 teams atop the conference with three losses after USC and Stanford each fell short Thursday. The Cardinal lost to Utah in overtime in Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile, Colorado edged Cal at home to improve to 7-3 in the Pac-12, and Oregon, already 7-3, is off till Saturday when it visits Oregon State.
Arizona can claim sole possession of first Saturday if it beats UCLA, Stanford beats Colorado, and OSU beats Oregon, three somewhat realistic outcomes.
“But I’m here to tell you that UCLA is a hard-nosed team,” Miller warned. “They play defense, they play together, they rebound, and they’re a much-improved team than where they were two months ago or a month ago. I know their coach well, and they work at it. They’re that group that can come in and really give the sloppy, fat and happy team a lesson. We sometimes can be that team.”
(Side note: UCLA lost to ASU by 18 on Thursday.)
Bill Walton has no chill
I’m just going to leave this here: