Looking ahead as Arizona basketball closes out regular season
Wildcats take on ASU Saturday
LOS ANGELES — Two years ago, then-ranked No. 10 Arizona Wildcats were swept on their Southern California road trip.
We all know what happened next.
Led by Derrick Williams, the Wildcats won their last two games, went to the Pac-12 championship game (and lost) and went on an unprecedented run to the Elite Eight.
The 11th-ranked Wildcats entered this season with aspirations to be the Pac-12 champions. After losses to USC on Wednesday and UCLA on Saturday, that is no longer a possibility. But it remains to be seen how Arizona (23-6, 11-6 Pac-12) will bounce back from the sweep this time around.
The Wildcats will face Arizona State at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in McKale Center.
“I think the goal for us is to go 24-6 and 12-6,” head coach Sean Miller said. “I think 24-6 and 12-6 we look at ourselves and say we missed the Pac-12 regular season championship by a game or whatever it becomes. I don’t think that was tonight’s game, I think there was a couple others, but that’s pretty good.”
Arizona is in the midst of a two-game losing streak, but all hope is not lost.
Still, for a while, the Wildcats were considered a contender for a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Realistically, they aren’t playing good enough to be ranked that highly.
In fact, with a loss on Saturday, Arizona could hypothetically fall back to fifth-place in the Pac-12 and kiss its first-round Pac-12 tournament bye, well, goodbye. In order for that to happen, Arizona would have to lose to ASU, and Colorado would have to win its games against Oregon and Oregon State this week.
“I know at one point we were a two seed,” Miller said. “I know one thing I can tell you guys is, I don’t know if we’re good enough to be a two seed. We might’ve played for a large part of the season at that level but at the end of the day, it’s not that our team’s in a slump, but you look at us we’re probably not one of the top-eight teams in the country, maybe one of the top 25. I think for us it’s a matter of finishing strong.”
Here is a look at some of the good (and bad) things going for the Wildcats as they ready for the Pac-12 tournament, which begins on March 13.
It’s no secret that defensively, Arizona has struggled in recent weeks.
After Wednesday’s 89-78 loss to USC, Miller called the team his best defensive one in his four years as head coach at Arizona. But, he also called its defense in recent games the worst he has ever coached.
The Wildcats did better against UCLA, but still not good enough to win against top-notch opponents.
UCLA shot 46.8 percent from the field, 41.2 from three, had 17 assists, 11 steals and nine turnovers.
Still, overall, the general theme after the UCLA game was acceptance. A loss is not good, but after games against Washington State and USC, the Wildcats will take a good effort.
“I still hate losing,” Kevin Parrom said. “But I can accept guys playing hard at the end. Guys tried, as a team we battled and I’ll take that. I’ll take the loss but guys battled. I can live with that.”
Johnson on the mend
As he did last year, sophomore guard Nick Johnson has been struggling to close out the season.
Before UCLA, Johnson was getting 6.5 points at 40 percent shooting in his last eight games.
“Coach always says I’m playmaker,” Johnson said. “I’m not a scorer, I just make plays. Three games I didn’t score over 10 points … it was good to see my shots go in today, but I don’t look at my stats as just for scoring.”
In that same eight-game span, he averaged 4.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
Johnson didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard against UCLA, scoring 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting, but he made progress toward what Arizona needs to be a bounce back for him, the player Miller calls Arizona’s defensive stopper.
“Nick’s a heck of a player,” Miller said. “For a long period of time of the season, he was arguably our best player and certainly one of them. Every player has his moments where the ball isn’t going in.
“He does a lot of things for our team.”
Grant Jerrett has had spurts of production this season, but not on level he did against UCLA on Saturday.
Jordin Mayes, on the other hand, hasn’t really made an impact since the first few games of the season.
Their respective performances against the Bruins nearly brought Arizona back into the game.
Jerrett scored a team-high 14 points on four 3-pointers and two free throws. Two of his treys came as Arizona went on a 12-2 to bring the game to within three points with 24 ticks left on the clock.
Mayes had eight points and two assists in 13 minutes.
“You kinda saw what our team can become when guys off the bench contribute,” Miller said.
Before he scored 10 Wednesday and 14 Saturday, Jerrett hadn’t scored 10 or more since Jan. 3 against Colorado.
Mayes hadn’t scored five or more since Dec. 22 against Eastern Tennessee State in the Diamondhead Classic in Hawaii. He was held scoreless in 10 of the previous 17 games, and scored just 1.1 points per game in that span.
“He’s had a rough go of it just from the perspective that his shot hasn’t fallen,” Miller said of Mayes. “But he stuck with it.”