What the heck happened to Arizona
On the dawn of November 22, 2017, Arizona was sitting proudly as the #2 team in all the land. And it wasn’t a shaky #2 either, as many voters had given them first place votes, and if someone said they were better than Duke, Kansas, or Villanova, no one would bat an eye.
Safe to say that this is no longer the case.
That evening, NC State, picked to finish in the bottom third of the ACC by many, stunned the Wildcats 90-84, taking control in the last two minutes. In the consolation round, SMU took down Arizona 66-60, sending them to a surprising seventh place game. At least those games were close. On Friday, Purdue, smarting from its own losses from Tennessee and Western Kentucky, dominated from the opening tip and won 89-64.
This is Arizona’s first three game losing streak before December ever, and the first ever three game losing streak for the #2 team in the country. It is now very possible that a team who had garnered first place votes a week ago might fall out of the Top 25 entirely.
Well, in each of those three games, they actually shot well inside the arc, shooting above 60% in tow of the games and 52% in the third. Deandre Ayton was the main contributor in this, as he had a monster tournament in spite of his team’s struggles, averaging 22 points and 12.3 rebounds throughout the tournament.
Outside the arc was a different story. The Wildcats took 54 threes in the tournament and made 10, for an abysmal 18.5%. Allonzo Trier, expected to be the best perimeter threat, went 3/16 in the tournament while taking almost 30% of all the Wildcat possessions. In spite of averaging 19 PPG, seem to have two empty possessions for every good one.
Each game seemed to sprout individual problems as well. Against NC State, they assisted on less than half of their baskets and fouled 22 times. Against SMU, they turned it over 20 times. And against Purdue, they gave up 11/22 shooting from three against a team that had struggled beforehand.
Arizona also does not get enough production outside of their big three of Trier, Ayton, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Outside of Brandon Rudolph’s 17 points in 26 minutes against NC State, only one other player scored in double digits and no one else played more than 25 minutes. Finding key role players and giving them consistent minutes is crucial for the Wildcats to improve.
The most surprising aspect though is that in their two close games, Arizona was within 4 points with around 3 minutes to go, and both times the other team pulled away down the stretch. For a team that does start two seniors and only one freshman (Ayton), this is a very surprising development, as Sean Miller has shown to be a very good end of game coach.
I think the ultimate conclusion to make is this is a team that is very much trying to figure itself out. They’re still are unsure of who will be the key role players outside of their Big 3, Allonzo Trier is adjusting to full alpha scorer. And they still have an FBI investigation looming over their heads, which no doubt adds tension to a locker room that is as tight as a piano wire.
This is not the end for Arizona at all, of course. Teams such as Indiana in 2016 and Virginia in 2014 have rebounded from rough starts in non-conference play to win their conference and advance to the second weekend in March. They still have non-conference tilts with Alabama, Texas A&M, and Connecticut to beef up the resume, and plenty of cream puff games to figure things out. This was the worst case scenario start for the Wildcats, but it does not have to be the worst case season as a whole.