“One thing that I love about this year’s class, and you just judge our incoming freshmen,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said back in September, noting there were four this season. “They all have won big before they ever showed up here.”
Indeed, Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji, Josh Green and Christian Koloko arrived in Tucson with excellent reputations, not only for producing stats but also accumulating victories.
For the most part the statistics have been there for the group, with Nnaji leading the way but the others showing a good many flashes. Unfortunately the wins have not followed.
Arizona’s struggles closing out games has become the stuff nightmares are made of. Unless the Wildcats are up double digits in the final minutes — and even then, the lead is not safe — there’s a good chance that not only will the game be close, but that Arizona will lose.
The different ways the team has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory is impressive, with going cold offensively, crucial turnovers, inability to rebound and even poor free throw shooting all deserving some credit.
Blame for that should be spread all around, because while the freshmen may be the faces of the team there are upperclassmen who could be helping to steady the ship.
Instead the team, for whatever reason, just cannot find a way to beat good teams in close games. Nearly every key player has had a role in at least one collapse, some larger than others.
Arizona has lost three games by one point and overall is just 3-7 in games decided by five points or less. According to KenPom Arizona is 328th in Luck, which implies that Arizona is this close to actually having a much better record. In some ways that is true, because if the Wildcats had even won just a few of the games they didn’t their record would be quite a bit better.
They’d likely be playing to lock down a conference title this week while angling for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But to say Arizona’s issue is bad luck is to ignore reality. It’s bad luck when a fumbled football bounces away from you or a tipped pass falls right into an opponent’s hands, just as it is unfortunate when a ground ball takes a funny bounce and gets by a waiting infielder.
It is not bad luck, however, when you turn the ball over, miss shots, clank free throws or fail to corral rebounds.
Ranked 17th overall in KenPom with an offense that’s 32nd and a defense that sits at No. 20, the Wildcats are by no means a bad basketball team. Their NET rating of 10th would indicate they are actually a very good team.
Yet they are 19-10 with a 9-7 record in a mediocre Pac-12, have now lost three straight games and have been left out of the AP Top 25 for a second consecutive week for the first time this season.
Arizona is still very much an NCAA Tournament team, albeit one of the toughest squads for which to project a seed. Barring them not winning another game the rest of the season, which is unlikely as the Washington schools come to Tucson, the Wildcats will be dancing later this month.
But Arizona should be in the NCAA Tournament. Failing to earn a bid with a top-5 recruiting class and other highly-regarded players on the roster the season would make this team go down as one of the biggest disasters in program history and perhaps be a sign that the program is irreparably damaged as currently constructed.
As bad as things seem right now, that’s not going to happen. Arizona will be one of the 68 teams vying for a National Championship. But as tough as they are to predict when it comes to seeding, predicting how far they will go is a fool’s errand, too.
In terms of talent, Arizona will be able to match up with pretty much anyone. This is a loaded roster that, as we’ve seen, is capable of hanging with some of the very best teams in the country.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats there are no moral victories in the tournament, so keeping it close in a losing effort means nothing other than the end of the season. And based on what we’ve seen over the previous 29 games, unless Arizona puts together six consecutive blowouts the odds of them hoisting a trophy as “One Shining Moment” plays are about as slim as those of Miller’s shirt staying dry during a game.
None of this is to say Arizona has no chance in close games. They have emerged victorious in three, remember, and just because they have not beaten good teams does not mean they can’t. Arizona could not win on the road until it beat Washington (in a close game, no less), and perhaps all these failures will end up being lessons that serve them well when it really counts.
Nico Mannion did just play his best game of the season in the loss at UCLA and if he can keep that up, the return of Josh Green may give the Wildcats enough to be plenty dangerous for whoever they match up against.
But if Arizona is to make any kind of deep run they will likely need to make big plays down the stretch in a close game or two. That’s just how the postseason works.
Up to now the team has provided little evidence that clutch play is coming, which is as frustrating as it is worrisome. They’ve been about as un-clutch as a team can be, which is disappointing for a team that is being led by players who were supposed to know how to win.
As the old Progressive commercial noted, sprinkles are for winners.
Thus far, Arizona’s sundae is disappointingly plain.