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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to UCLA

The defense is bad and Bennedict Mathurin needs more minutes

UCLA v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images,

The Arizona Wildcats dropped their second straight game on Saturday, falling at home to the UCLA Bruins by a score of 81-76.

The Wildcats are now 9-3 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12 as they head to the Pacific Northwest to play Oregon State and Oregon.

Our recap of Saturday’s loss can be found here, UA head coach Sean Miller’s full postgame press conference can be watched/read here, and below are some additional takeaways.

The defense is “horrible” and this was a reality check

The USC game was Arizona’s worst defensive performance of the season from a statistical standpoint. Then the UCLA game happened. The Bruins averaged 1.35 points per possession and posted a super efficient shooting line of .490/.462/.844.

When the Bruins weren’t missing shots, they were very likely to grab their own miss. They logged 10 offensive rebounds, the most a team has had against UA in a regulation game this season.

And if they weren’t making shots or grabbing offensive rebounds, then they were probably at the free throw line where they converted 27 of their 32 tries.

Another damning stat for Arizona: it only forced nine turnovers. the fewest all season. Miller called the Wildcats a “horrible defensive team.”

“We played against two very good teams, but that’s who you judge yourself by, right?” Miller said. “You learn a lot about your team when you play players like the Mobley brothers and tonight you have UCLA that has a guy in every position who’s a threat.”

It’s a shame because the defensive woes are overshadowing what is the No. 21 offense in the country. Saturday’s game was actually UA’s fourth-best offensive night of the season, according to KenPom.

“But we can’t get the value out of that because we just have no answer on defense,” Miller said. “Straight line drives, in and around the basket, and just the fouling is just off the charts right now. We have a saying: ‘undisciplined teams or players are coached by an undisciplined coach’, and fouling is discipline. Sometimes it might be you’re outmatched or outmanned, but for the most part if you have a problem as a team fouling, that’s something that we, or I, have to correct.

“UCLA tonight got to the line 32 times, they converted 27. When we played USC, they had 11 points in the first half from the line, they were in the bonus, maybe the double bonus, about eight minutes in. And we got a couple of guys just absolutely hammering the other team. It’s not basketball. We have to adjust. Our players have to adjust. I and our staff have to do an even better job coaching and teaching them because fouling is a big part of the game of basketball, and we’re on the wrong end of that right now.”

The disastrous night dropped Arizona’s adjusted defensive efficiency from 51st in the country to 64th. Only taking conference games into account, the Wildcats have the fourth-worst defense in the Pac-12.

Arizona has posted its four worst defensive efficiencies against the four good teams it has played—a reality check that tells you that this team is not one of the best in the conference. It is a middle-of-the-pack squad that needs play well to beat a good team, especially without a homecourt advantage.

By the way, here is UA adjusted defensive efficiency in those four games I was talking about:

  • at Stanford: 112.7 — loss
  • vs. Colorado: 109.7 — win
  • vs. USC: 115.8 — loss
  • vs. UCLA: 124.8 — loss

After that, UA’s next worst defensive outing came in the win at Washington State (94.9).

Things went from bad to worse for Jemarl Baker

Baker’s shooting struggles continued against UCLA, as he went 2 for 7 from the field and missed all four 3s he attempted. Over his last three games, he is shooting 3 for 28 and 0 for 15 from 3. Before that, he was a 44% 3-point shooter.

To make matters worse, Baker injured his hand in the first half against UCLA and could miss some time depending on what X-rays reveal. Miller said a sprain or fracture is possible.

Tough break (hopefully not literally) for a guy who started the season on fire and has already dealt with a bunch of injuries in his career.

Bennedict Mathurin is due for a bigger role

Baker’s absence in the second half made something abundantly clear: Mathurin deserves more minutes. There was a three-minute stretch late in the second half in which he buried two 3s and flew in for a putback dunk to keep Arizona within striking distance:

As Baker’s stock has plummeted, Mathurin’s has skyrocketed.

Over the last four games, the freshman is averaging 14 points per game while shooting 52% from the field, 7 for 16 from 3, and 15 for 17 from the free throw line. He’s also had two games with six or more rebounds, including an 11-board performance at Washington State.

And with Baker struggling on defense too, it’s hard to make an argument that Mathurin isn’t the better option right now. Yet, Mathurin only played seven minutes in the first half, compared to 14 in the second half, when he scored all eight of his points and energized the team.

The ever-so-observant Bill Walton asked what every UA fan was wondering: “Why didn’t he play more earlier?”

Don’t worry, Miller was thinking that too.

“I think he’s a guy that now that we’ve played the games that we’ve played, we got to give him a bigger role, we have to get him in there more,” Miller said of Mathurin. “And from a defensive perspective, he’s going to make plenty of mistakes, but being that he’s 18 years old and a freshman, I have great faith that two weeks, four weeks from now, there’s some things that Benn’s going to be better at than he is now because he’s so young.”

James Akinjo learned from the USC game

After going scoreless against USC, Miller said he met with Akinjo to stress how important it is that he not let a cold shooting night affect the rest of his game.

“If you’re the engine that makes the team go, you can be a really good engine, and you can be a broken down engine, right?” Miller said. “You’re still the engine.”

Akinjo responded with one of the best games of the season, with 25 points (tying his career high), eight assists and just one turnover. He shot 8 for 16 from the field, 4 for 7 from 3 and buried all five of his free throw attempts. It was just his second time shooting 50 percent or better this season.

“I don’t think we could have asked much more from him,” Miller said.

UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell was just as good if not better. He had 22 points on just 10 shots, plus two assists and no turnovers.

“Part of our game plan, especially in the first half, was to not let him distribute and make him score more,” Miller said. “And a really terrific player like him, that’s what he did. He said you, ‘if you’re gonna give me this, I’m gonna take it’ and I thought he was great. As good as James was on our end, he really negated James.”

Azuolas Tubelis is Arizona’s best player now

It was Baker earlier in the season, but his production has cratered.

After dropping a career-high 31 points in the loss to USC, Tubelis had 15 and eight rebounds against the Bruins. He picked up right where he left off, scoring seven points in the first four minutes. Three came via a corner 3-pointer, a shot he seems very confident in right now.

“We got him the ball a couple times deep, he had a couple moves in and around the rim there, just the ball didn’t go in for him,” Miller said. “He had a good night and maybe if a couple more go down, he has 20 and eight. But we weren’t able to get him to the line. I thought a couple times we were close to getting him to the line.”

Tubelis has now scored in double figures in four straight games and has scored at least eight points in seven straight games.

Unfortunately the way college basketball is, every time a player starts to shine like this you begin to wonder if it will be enough for him to test the professional waters after the season.

The foul calls on rebounds are maddening

Arizona big men Christian Koloko, Ira Lee and Azuolas Tubelis all finished with four fouls in part because the referees were quick to call fouls on rebounding attempts.

Those whistles made the game choppy and contributed to UA’s defensive woes. That might be a problem they can’t fix on their own.

“I’m confused,” Miller said. “It all depends on what night we’re playing what’s an offensive rebound foul and what isn’t. I don’t know what that is out here. I don’t. But that’s a story for another day. The things that we can correct, we have to correct because our defense is our problem.”