Arizona had no business losing that game.
Or that game. Or that game. Or that game. Or that game.
Pick any of the Wildcats’ five losses this season, all to teams currently projected to miss the NCAA Tournament, and you would be correct in noting Arizona was more talented. And yet, the scoreboard begged to differ each time.
At least the most recent loss, to Arizona State, was a close game.
Had it not been to the Sun Devils, losing a game on a roughly 60-foot shot at the buzzer would be worth more laughter than angst. Because unlike the previous four defeats in which Arizona was barely competitive, this was a game that would have gone the Wildcats’ way had it not been for a handful of mistakes and one miraculous buzzer-beater.
It’s not like Arizona was bad. Their defense and free throw shooting left much to be desired, and there were some untimely turnovers. However, the Cats did make 51 percent of their shots and were 11-of-26 from 3-point range. They also attempted 34 free throws. That should be good enough to win most games, though it’s tougher when your defense is lacking and you struggle making those foul shots.
The defense wasn’t helped by the Sun Devils making shots they don’t normally make, but that happens sometimes. As for the free throws, making just 23 of 34 put Arizona at 68 percent, which is below their season average of around 72.
Ironically after all the missed free throws it was the last one shot, a make by Oumar Ballo, that likely cost Arizona the game.
“All in all, I thought there was a lot of great moments and obviously, I wish we would have played maybe better defensively earlier in the game,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said after the game. “It happened, and I thought we had a lot of clutch plays on offense and defense down the stretch that we’ll learn from.”
Lloyd isn’t wrong.
Just think about it: Down by one with under a minute left, the Cats — following a turnover — forced an ASU miss and got the rebound. On the ensuing possession, Arizona ran a play that got Pelle Larsson to the rim, where he made the clutch shot to give Arizona a 1-point lead with 24 seconds remaining.
Then, needing a stop, the defense stiffened and forced the Sun Devils into a panicked, difficult shot that was missed. Arizona got the rebound and, well, that should have been that.
To sum it up, needing a bucket, Arizona got one. Needing a stop, Arizona got them. With 2.9 seconds left on the clock, it looked like it would be enough.
The loss eliminated Arizona from Pac-12 championship contention and if it didn’t knock the Wildcats off the 2-seed line for the NCAA Tournament, it’s made their footing rather wobbly. In a season filled with dumb losses this one may have been the dumbest, but it’s also not one that has to mean much in the grand scheme of things.
Lloyd recognized that after the game.
“This game, literally, whatever,” he said. “Maybe it impacts things a little bit here and there, but not enough to matter. So let’s get better.
“This team, we’ve been playing pretty well. Tonight it was just a crazy game, a rival game against a talented team.”
The latest AP Poll saw Arizona drop all the way from seventh to eighth. The latest bracketology is still mixed, though Joe Lunardi now has the Cats as a third seed (in the Midwest), no. 9 overall.
None of it is set in stone, however.
With road tilts against the Los Angeles schools as well as a Pac-12 Tournament, opportunity to either move up or cement their seed remains. And should Arizona go on to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, the loss to ASU won’t matter to anyone outside of Tempe.
Further, if Arizona does go on to win many more games and go deep into March the moment being dubbed the “McKale Mary” by folks in Tempe may turn out to be the catalyst that got them there.
At least, that’s how the loss will be spun. Asked after the game about the team now having the mentality that it must win every game, senior guard Courtney Ramey said they had that for most of the season. He also noted how there are still important games left to be played.
“We’re going to get ready for March, and I think we’re going to be a whole new team now after today’s game,” he said. “We’re gonna buckle up and get better.”
Should a wake up call of sorts have been necessary this late in the season? Is it reasonable that the Cats may not have been mentally prepared in the final game in front of the home fans against your in-state rival?
The short answer is no, but college basketball is more complicated than that.
For all their talent, Arizona tends to lack focus at times. It’s the only way to explain how a team that could lose the games it has, the way it has, could also go and beat the likes of San Diego State, Creighton, Indiana, Tennessee and UCLA.
It’s why a tweet such as the one CBS Sports' Jerry Palm sent out Saturday afternoon was likely meant to be a joke but is also far too real.
Arizona has five losses. The highest NET ranking of a team that beat them is 50 - Oregon. They also have five wins vs top 20 teams. If they manage to get past of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, they might win the whole thing.— Jerry Palm (@jppalmCBS) February 25, 2023
Indeed, the Wildcats’ penchant for playing down to the level of its competition is disappointing. But fans can take solace in the fact that Arizona won’t have to face any non-NCAA Tournament teams in the NCAA Tournament.