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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to Colorado

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats erased a 17-point first-half deficit but could not complete the comeback on Saturday in an 82-79 road loss to the Colorado Buffaloes.

The defeat drops the Wildcats to 13-6 overall and 7-6 in the Pac-12 heading into a homestand vs. the Oregon schools.

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

The defense blew it again

Arizona shot 70 percent for most of the second half to erase a nine-point halftime deficit, but struggled to build any kind of separation down the stretch. The defense just could not string together any stops. Colorado made seven of its last nine shots plus four free throws in the final 15 seconds to escape with the win.

Arizona made some critical mental mistakes. Like losing Evan Battey on a backcut for an easy layup (he outmuscled UA’s frontcourt all night) and James Akinjo helping on a McKinley Wright drive, allowing Eli Parquet to sink the game-tying 3 with 1:12 left when a 2-pointer wouldn’t have been so damaging.

Battey later made a savvy veteran play at Bennedict Mathurin’s expense, getting into a wrestling match far away from an inbounds pass to draw the foul that led to the go-ahead free throws. It was a questionable call, yes, but one Pac-12 refs are privy of making. Unfortunately Mathurin, a freshman, is still learning that.

“If you’re going to foul, you want to foul on a last second shot,” Miller said. “Then we ran into the play before that, defensively, when we gave them a game-tying 3. At that point you have to recognize up three, stay at home, and I wish I would have done a better job in the timeout and just explaining that before we went out there. But when you make those errors, Colorado still has to make the plays and they made the free throws, they made the 3s, and they’re a good team. They really are.”

The Buffaloes, who in fairness have the No. 10 offense in the country, averaged 1.3 points per possession. That is Arizona’s worst mark of the season, dropping them from 71st to 84th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. That is the worst they have ranked since Miller’s first season in 2009-10 and it’s a real shame considering they are the 18th-best offensive team in the country.

“But there’s no denying our effort level, there is no denying our togetherness,” Miller said. “There was no denying our offensive play or our defensive play. I thought we executed and played with a tremendous effort. Look, we have some holes. We’re not a perfect team and our defense, again, a couple times in the last four minutes, last six minutes, if we were able to get a defensive stop, create a turnover, play the possession without fouling, we leave here with a great victory.”

Benn responded well to the benching

Mathurin came off the bench Saturday after Miller had issues with his attitude in the Utah loss but it was a short ride on the pine. The freshman checked in just 43 seconds into the game after Christian Koloko lost his contact lens, and quickly made it clear that the Utah debacle was a thing of the past.

Mathurin finished with 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting including four 3s, one of his best nights as a Wildcat. Three of those triples came in the second half. One of them put UA up 74-70 with 3:21 left, their largest lead of the night.

Miller said Mathurin “took some ownership of some things that we really challenged him with.”

“There’s nobody that can play well as a college basketball player if your mind’s not right, or if you’re not thinking about the right things,” Miller said. “In fairness to Benn, he’s 18 years old and this is a huge adjustment and challenge. He’s somebody that scored 31 points in a Pac-12 game. He’s starting at Arizona and whether you’re a freshman at 18, or you’re a senior, there’s some responsibility that goes with that, that it’s not always going to go your way, you’re not always going to have a big night, but your team needs you to be a great teammate. You have to be a good defensive player, offensive player, and really over the last two weeks, Benn’s also been simultaneously battling an ankle injury that hasn’t allowed him to practice. And then the Stanford game, he wasn’t nearly 100%. So we’ve worked with him in that capacity as well.

“But he wasn’t who I believe he really is against Utah. It was good for him to have those talks. Yes, he has had two or three really hard talks with me. But it’s not to hurt his feelings. It’s to develop him, to teach him, to get him right, to prepare him for things to come. This road as an athlete at this level is not always going to be smooth and hopefully it’s a lesson he learned on this trip. He certainly responded well tonight. I thought he played an excellent game.”

You know that’s true when our friends over at Ralphie Report are tweeting things like this:

Arizona keeps fighting

There have been a couple times this season when it looked like Arizona’s season was about to come unglued. The first: when they were swept at home rather easily by the Los Angeles schools. Rather than letting that snowball, the Wildcats beat Oregon State and ASU twice to keep the ship afloat and even build some momentum.

The double-digit loss at Utah on Thursday could have tanked them too. As Miller and Azuolas Tubelis would say after the game, the Wildcats got their butts kicked. Badly.

They then followed that up by digging themselves into a 19-2 hole against the Buffaloes. At that point, I’m sure many of you were thinking, “yeah, this team has given in.”

Nope.

The Wildcats were able to whittle Colorado’s lead down to nine by the end of the first half (it would have been six if not for a buzzer beater) and came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders to grab the lead.

So, regardless of the result, Miller said he couldn’t be prouder of his team, which he thought played some of its best basketball of the season in Boulder.

“Our guys really responded,” he said. “We had a good practice. We had a couple really tough film sessions. We had a big meeting. I think we really started to drill down on roles: what is your role on our team? What is your role as part of our program? We have so many new faces and February represents a different challenge. There’s a lot of teams playing for a lot. Colorado is an example. So is Utah, and I didn’t think we were quite ready for that on Thursday. We were much more ready for that on Saturday. ... I wish we could have left with a win, but I’d much rather get on a plane with the team that we have today than we were on Thursday. Thursday almost needed to happen for us to maybe be better tonight.”

Kerr Kriisa is on the board

It took almost two whole games for Kriisa to register his first career points but they were big ones. The freshman stepped into a deep 3 with the shot clock winding down and buried it to put Arizona 60-59 with nine minutes left in regulation.

Kriisa also made a key defensive play earlier in the half, drawing a charge on Wright, who barreled into the UA guard with a full head of steam.

Seeing Kriisa sacrifice his body fired Arizona players up, which is one of Kriisa’s best attributes as a player.

“You can see he has a spirit to him,” Miller said. “He’s against the odds right now in that he’s just starting his career when everybody is about 75% into the season so I thought he made a big difference. We were able to rest James. We were able to rest Terrell (Brown Jr.). You saw Kerr made the three, drew another charge. He’s a tough kid. He reminds me a lot of T.J. McConnell, and it’s nice to have him out there, it really is. I wish we would have had him all year but we’re glad to have him now. He’s a tough kid. We knew that about him. He practices with us all the time. He’s only going to get better with more game experience.”

For the road trip, Kriisa logged 35 minutes and had three points, three assists and a steal on 1-of-6 shooting.

Arizona is who the preseason pollsters thought they were

While there was once a lot of optimism around this team for this season, the reality is that they are exactly what they were projected to be—a middle of the Pac team.

Arizona has played five teams in KenPom’s Top 70—USC, UCLA, Colorado, Stanford. and Utah—and they are 1-6 in those games. If you prefer the NET metrics, Arizona is just 4-6 in Quadrant 1 and 2 games and 9-0 in those easy Quadrant 3 and 4 games.

In other words, Arizona beats who they are supposed to beat but struggles when they play anybody decent. Isn’t that what you should expect from a team that was picked to finish fifth in a weak conference? (Which, by the way, was actually higher than where Miller thought they should be.)