The Wildcats fall to 16-7 overall and 6-4 in the Pac-12 heading into the Bay Area road trip.
Arizona made history...
For the wrong reason. The Wildcats shot 25.4 percent from the field, their worst percentage ever in McKale Center, which opened in 1973.
They shot 6 for 23 from 3, clanking their last 12, and somehow went 6 for 20 on layups even though UCLA only had one block. Arizona’s big three of Zeke Nnaji, Josh Green, and Nico Mannion combined to shoot 7 for 33.
Mannion, who went 2 for 14 with zero—yes, zero—assists in 35 minutes, chalked up it as one of those nights where shots just weren’t falling.
Miller, meanwhile, thought his team lacked the toughness it needed against a UCLA frontcourt that was both long and strong.
“It’s a man’s game,” he said. “You have to be physical, you have to go through contact, you can’t cry. Sometimes you have to make a clever pass because they’re physical and walling up, and their toughness and physicality wore on all of us. it wore on our team, wore on our drives, wore on our second shots. Early in the game you could see guys are like begging for the foul and falling down. And you have to know going into the game that they’re playing that type of game, and you have to be able to adjust but that that really bothered us.”
Miller “absolutely” saw it coming after seeing Arizona struggle down the stretch Thursday vs. USC, another team with a rugged frontcourt, going the last eight minutes of that game without a field goal.
He also knew UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s teams play with incredible physicality, having faced his Cincinnati squads several times while the head coach at Xavier.
“We really worked hard on the heels of our USC game to make sure we’re locked in and prepared,” Miller said. “There’s no magic potion, and I don’t want to point towards our preparation as the reason we lost. The game starts at eight o’clock on Saturday, it’s a big game, it’s a nationally-televised game. Clearly, we had a lot of respect for UCLA. I knew that their style would be problematic for certain guys and just our team. But you hope that as the game wears on, you get used to it, playing at home and you have a lot of different players that can step up.”
The roster is imbalanced
The problem with relying on freshmen to carry your team, Miller said, is it opens the door to some nasty stretches of inconsistency, like when Arizona endured two eight-minute field-goalless droughts against UCLA.
It also makes them prone to some very head-scratching mistakes such as when Mannion and Nnaji were totally on the wrong page and turned an Arizona inbounds pass into a UCLA fastbreak:
Arizona is, um, not at its best tonight pic.twitter.com/tYxkI0wHbw— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 9, 2020
It all highlights this: Arizona doesn’t have the veteran leadership it needs to navigate those difficult stretches, whether that be making plays or motivating others to do so.
Yes, Arizona has three seniors in its rotation, but two of them—Stone Gettings and Max Hazzard—are in their first year in the program, making them seniors in name only. And all three seniors previously played at the mid-major level for a reason: they are just not that good.
Still, you can make up for a dearth of talent with great effort, gameplanning, and/or continuity. Arizona sometimes has that first one and the second one is up for debate, but it’s definitely missing the third.
Consider that Ira Lee is the only scholarship player on the roster who signed with Arizona out of high school and has played more than two seasons with the program. (Brandon Williams does not count since he has been out all year.)
How can you expect a team to play together, especially when things get tough, when they have not had time to build any trust? You see that in Arizona’s halfcourt offense, where they are much more tentative than in transition where not as much thought is required.
It was yet another reason why UCLA, which plays at one of the slowest paces in the country, was able to shut down Arizona the way it did. The Wildcats grabbed just 14 defensive rebounds, allowing the Bruins to slog the pace and put fastbreak opportunities at a premium.
The defense is struggling too
UCLA shot 44 percent, but 6 for 10 from 3, in the first half, before converting 59 percent of its shots in the second half. That was after USC shot 53 percent in the second half of Thursday’s game.
Add that to Arizona’s offensive struggles and the Wildcats have been outscored 102-75 since they led 63-43 at the 12:55 mark of the second half vs. USC, shooting 18 for 71 (25.3 percent) during that span.
To use Miller’s term, Arizona has “reverted.”
“We’re really trying to be good at both sides of the ball, and I thought on our Washington trip...that was the overall best defense we played all season and we got two great victories away from home on nights when the ball wasn’t necessarily going in,” he said. “Kind of like tonight. Had some good looks, didn’t go in. But for about maybe 28 or 30 minutes of USC, we were solid, but we had a hard time playing hard the entirety. And when you play against a team like UCLA, they play hard, and they played hard tonight, the advantage is going to go to them.”
Why Dylan Smith played so much
Smith was just as much of a culprit as the freshmen, going 0 for 7 from the field. His misses included air-balling an open 3 and forcing up a wild shot in transition in a 1-on-3 that made Miller face palm.
Smith also only had one rebound and one assist, yet still managed to play 24 minutes, two more than Jemarl Baker Jr. who hit three 3s, because of his defense.
“I think Dylan is obviously struggling with his shot, he’s missed about 20 in a row, but Dylan is 6-5 and he’s that one wing player that can really help us defensively,” Miller said. “Our subs are much smaller, so it’s tough just to go without him because we trust him on defense and he’s also had some really good moments on offense this season. Hopefully he can get his confidence back. You want your team to have confidence. We certainly didn’t look like we had confidence tonight. That’s all me. That’s my job as the coach.”
The selection committee was right
Some Arizona fans felt slighted that the Wildcats were not among the NCAA selection committee’s top 16 overall seeds despite being eighth in NET, but it’s hard to complain about that now, isn’t it?
A Quadrant 3 loss really hurts Arizona’s resume.
Colorado takes first place, but Arizona is still in the Pac-12 title hunt
By beating Stanford and having Oregon State beat Oregon, and UCLA beat USC, the Colorado Buffaloes (8-3) now stand alone in first place in the Pac-12. They erased a 16-point second-half deficit against the Cardinal on Saturday.
Still, it is hard to peg CU as the favorite to win the conference since they are only a game ahead of Oregon, Arizona and ASU, and still have road games against Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Utah. They also have home games vs. USC and UCLA, which, as Arizona just proved, aren’t gimmes.
Lose any expectations you have for Arizona
Following up a very successful Washington road trip with a pretty dismal homestand against the L.A. schools shows you should not expect anything from this Arizona team, good or bad.
Because as awful as they looked against USC and UCLA, it would not be surprising at all if they follow it up with a road sweep of the Bay Area schools, who are both extremely vulnerable now that Stanford could be without star forward Oscar da Silva, who slammed his head on the court vs. Colorado.
Well, that and the Pac-12 as a whole is just so unpredictable this year. It’s entertaining and maddening at the same time.