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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to USC

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Photo by Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats were dispatched by the USC Trojans 87-73 on Thursday in McKale Center to fall to 9-2 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12.

Our recap can be found here, Sean Miller’s full postgame interview can be read/watched here, and below are some additional takeaways.

Azuolas Tubelis was the best big on the court

Before the game even tipped off, the ESPN announcers were hyping up USC center Evan Mobley and his NBA potential. Fair enough. He’ll be a top-5 pick this summer.

But by the end of the game they were fawning over Arizona freshman Azuolas Tubelis.

The Lithuanian forward continues to blossom, dropping a game-high 31 points on 16 shots to go along with eight rebounds. It was his third straight game scoring in double figures and the eighth time he has scored at least eight points in a game this season.

The lefty hit a pair of 3s, made seven of nine free throws, dunked in transition, showed extremely soft touch around the rim, made mid-range jumpers and has a great knack for putting himself in scoring position. The most notable instance was when he sealed off his man so well that Terrell Brown was able to sneak a bounce pass along the baseline to him for an easy lay in.

“It was an awesome game,” Miller said. “I mean, there’s not too many freshmen that I’ve coached that have had 31 in a Pac-12 game against the talent level that was on the court. He’s getting better and more comfortable. A big reason we were in the game for most of it was because of his individual effort.”

Tubelis joined Deandre Ayton as the only other UA freshman to score 30 or more points under Miller.

“I feel more comfortable (on the court) now but we still lost this game, so it’s not a great feeling right now,” Tubelis said.

Still, he enjoyed the challenge of facing USC’s frontcourt, the tallest in the country.

“You need to create different shots offensively and stuff, so it was fun to play against them,” he said. “They’re really good players.”

Arizona’s starting guards just weren’t good enough

Miller was blunt about that.

“In the Pac-12, it’s going to be hard for us to overcome 1 for 15 from our starting backcourt,” he said.

That was the combined shooting line for James Akinjo, Jemarl Baker and Dalen Terry. It’s not like they were tremendous distributing the ball either, combining for nine assists and seven turnovers. And USC’s Isaiah White completely outclassed them on the other end, scoring 22 points on just 10 shots.

“Their length can bother every team that plays them, but we also had some good looks,” Miller said.

Baker’s struggles are especially concerning since this was the second game in a row that he was a non-factor. Remember, he went 1 for 14 against Washington State.

He twisted his ankle in that game, but Miller downplayed the severity of it.

“He could be limited, he was able to practice yesterday, and he did turn his ankle in the Washington State game, but I think Jemarl will be fine,” he said. “We’ll be careful tomorrow. And hopefully, like all of our players and our coaching staff, we can put this game behind us, learn from it, grow from it, be better, and have a chance to compete against a very good UCLA team.”

A starting lineup change wouldn’t be a bad idea, but still sounds unlikely

Miller was resistant to the idea of a starting lineup change because he likes the skill sets Terrell Brown and Bennedict Mathurin bring off the bench, but it’s getting harder to justify starting Dalen Terry.

He’s an active defender, a decent rebounder, and made a couple nice passes Thursday, particularly that one-handed fling to Tubelis for a transition dunk. Otherwise, his offensive value is in the tank.

Terry has only scored 16 points over the last seven games. He is shooting 6 for 25 from the field during that stretch. Heading into the USC game, he had the worst offensive rating on the team (99.5).

Compare that to Mathurin and Brown, who both scored in double figures against the Trojans and have been doing so on a consistent basis now. Heck, Mathurin might be Arizona’s best scorer right now.

I understand the notion that who closes the game is more important than who starts—and to be fair, Mathurin and Brown did play slightly more minutes than Terry on Thursday—but Arizona missed seven of its first 10 shots and 14 of its first 20 against USC.

Plus, maybe putting more scoring around Akinjo and Baker would ease the pressure on them and help them get back on track.

Expect to see the same starting five against UCLA anyway.

“With one loss, just like with a road sweep in Washington, it’s never quite as good as it seems,” Miller said. “With the loss, it’s not, ‘let’s change everything.’ I think we have to see it for what it is.”

Hopefully this effort was an aberration

The Wildcats played with a spirited competitiveness during their sweep of the Washington schools, a feel-good story after the news of the self-imposed postseason.

Thursday, they looked more like a team without anything to play for. They fell behind by eight midway through the second half and couldn’t muster enough stops to pull within one possession.

USC shot 21 for 28 in the second half, what Miller called a “stat sheet that you don’t see very often.”

“You get into a game where you can’t get a stop and you can’t make a shot, it’s hard to keep fighting and I don’t think we fought to the end. I really don’t,” he said. “I thought it just became too hard. We were overwhelmed. We gave in down the homestretch, which is disappointing and something that clearly we will fix.

“There may have been times when we were in the right position, and maybe they hit a tough, hard-earned shot. But for the most part they got whatever they wanted. In the first half, it was our fouling. In the second half, when we needed the big stop, or consecutive stops to really make this a one-possession game or a game where we could win, we never could quite get that.”

Saturday might be a must-win game for Arizona’s Pac-12 title hopes

The only trophy Arizona can win this season is a Pac-12 championship, so we might as track that as closely as we can even if it’s still early in the conference season.

UCLA knocked off ASU in Tempe on Thursday to improve to 4-0 in the Pac-12, meaning Saturday’s game in Tucson might be a must-win for Arizona.

Lose to UCLA and the Wildcats would be three games behind the Bruins in the loss column with a game at Pauley Pavilion still to be played in February.