Don’t stop believing?
At halftime, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ blared in McKale Center as the 13,052 in attendance waved white glowsticks.
It turned out to be a very fitting tune. Because right when you think this team is beyond repair, it does something to pull you right back in, to make you believe that anything is possible.
Thursday, that turning point came in the fashion of a 26-0 run that flipped a six-point deficit into a 20-point lead and livened a crowd that had been unusually tame.
Arizona’s 3s were falling, the defense was disruptive and opportunistic, the pace was swift but controlled, and Nico Mannion looked every bit of the lottery pick he is projected to be, draining step backs and flinging passes all over the floor. The freshman scored 12 points during that 26-0 run and assisted on four others.
“As you can see we certainly have it in us,” Miller said. “When we’re playing very good defense and offense I feel like we can play with anybody.”
Seriously, what a difference a half can make:
- First half: 36.0 FG%, 3-10 3PT, 21-21 rebounding margin, 8 turnovers. 33.3 opp FG%
- Second half: 57.1 FG%, 6-8 3PT, 19-14 rebounding margin, 5 turnovers, 32.1 opp FG%
“It started with us taking better care of the ball,” Mannion said. “That was a big focus heading into the second half. We were getting stops and first-shot rebounds. And defensive rebounds for us fuel transition.”
Mannion added that when Arizona is locked in and confident “we can do that more often.” Miller had a similar assessment, saying “the confidence that might have been lacking in the first half, it came back to us.”
Based on how this roller coaster of a season has gone, it is bound to leave them again (and probably the next time they are entrenched in a close game).
But why? Why can’t this team be confident and stay confident? It’s a question that is of utmost importance now that the postseason is around the corner.
“That’s sports,” Miller said. “I’m not sure anyone can really answer that. I think confidence always comes through regular performance, and sometimes not making the game bigger than it needs to.”
Nico Mannion is playing his best basketball of the season
After scoring 19 points at UCLA, Mannion followed that up with 23 against Washington State, his highest scoring average over a two-game span this season.
His shooting slump appears to be over—or at least on hold—as he is 6 for his last 13 from beyond the arc even though his shot selection has more or less been the same.
“I just had to stick to my process because I know that’s going to win out,” Mannion said. “I had a few bad games. I know my teammates are always behind me, they’re always pushing me, and they’re confident in me and I’m of course always confident myself so I just knew if I stuck with the process, staying in the gym, got my extra work in, that it’d start to fall in line.”
Mannion has also posted 13 assists to just two turnovers over his last two games and become a stingier defender. Miller lauded Mannion’s work ethic, but said that alone cannot explain his improved play.
“It’s everything,” Miller said. “It’s film, it’s playing well away from home, against different types of players. If I just judge Nico on his defense, it might be the biggest gap that anyone on our team has filled between maybe when we scrimmaged against Saint Mary’s and where he is today. He has the know-how, he has a lot of reps under him, he’s just much more dependable and an overall better defensive player.”
Most would argue that it has taken Mannion longer than expected to settle in given how how highly touted he was coming out of high school. Miller understands that argument but tried to add some perspective to it.
“In fairness to him, it’s a world of expectations that are almost impossible to meet,” he said. “If you look at the role he has a freshman, the amount of minutes that he’s played and the games that he’s played really well in, he’s had a really dynamic first year. We’re all holding him to this standard of excellence of today’s world of college basketball. It just takes time. It takes time to get comfortable, it takes time to learn what it takes to play against a college zone.”
Another game of musical chairs
Thursday marked the third straight game that Arizona has been missing at least one player in its rotation. Chase Jeter served the first game of a two-game suspension and Max Hazzard missed his second game in as many weeks due to personal reasons.
Miller said Jeter will return to the court after he serves his suspension, and a UA spokesman later added that Jeter will still participate in Senior Day ceremonies on Saturday.
No word on Hazzard, who, unlike Jeter, did not sit with his teammates on the bench Thursday.
“It’s personal,” Miller said.
On the flip side, Josh Green returned after missing two games with a lower back injury, and was a big part of Arizona’s second half surge, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the final 20 minutes, including a pair of 3s. He also helped the Wildcats hold WSU’s backcourt of CJ Elleby and Isaac Bonton to 31 points on 31 shots.
“It’s not easy to miss a week, to be injured, not practice, be away from the team,” Miller said. He’s done a good job working his way back. Part of what we struggled with in the first half is it just felt funny for him and maybe a little bit for our team. He was back out there but was he really back out there? In the second half I think he really found his footing. Moving forward obviously he’s a very key piece.”
Jemarl Baker Jr. is the next guy Arizona needs to get back on track
Like Mannion, Baker has been struggling with his shot. He entered Thursday having made one 3 in his last six games. He doubled that total against the Cougars, going 2 for 5 from distance.
With Hazzard’s status in doubt, the Wildcats need Baker’s production more than ever. Ira Lee and Christian Koloko, two defensive-minded players, just aren’t going to provide much of a scoring punch off the bench.
“It’s like we have a scale,” Miller said. “Our defense is going in this direction (up), especially from the beginning of December, and our offense was kind of going the other direction. What we need is to be good on both ends.”