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Analysis: Leaderless Arizona lacking heart at wrong time

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Simon Asher | The Daily Wildcat Arizona's Dylan Smith (3) dejectedly walks off the court after the UA-UCLA game on Thursday, Feb. 8 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. The Wildcats lost to the Bruins with a final score of 82-74.

With 4:56 left in the game for the Arizona men’s basketball team against visiting UCLA, the ball rolled along midcourt up for grabs. Several UA players could have made an attempt to dive on the loose ball, but none did. Instead, the Bruins Gyorgy Goloman come up with it after sliding on the floor and tossed it to a teammate. 

The Wildcats, in the midst of a 5-0 run to cut a 14-point deficit to nine, ended up fouling UCLA’s Aaron Holiday, resulting in free throws. It was a snapshot into what this 2017-18 Arizona team is, limited in the heart and leaderless.

“Defense is will, defense is ability and we probably have a little bit of everything that makes us the team that we are defensively,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “We probably have been spoiled in that we’ve had a number of teams, even the last two years, where we weren’t elite but we were very good. Certainly strong enough to win games with our defense. When you’re that team that constantly has to outscore the other team, this week, that other team can outscore us. That’s really what happened tonight.”

Simon Asher
Arizona Men's Basketball Head Coach Sean Miller walks off the court after the UA-UCLA game on Thursday, Feb. 8 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. UCLA beat Arizona 82-74.

Will and ability, the Wildcats have one but are in search for another. Without the two working together, they are both useless. 

If it was for lack of an example, perhaps all the Wildcats needed was to look across the court at UCLA’s Holiday. From the opening basket, Holiday was aggressive. Scoring on the games first layup then charging down court to body up Allonzo Trier. He was relentless and set the tone for a Bruin squad who came in ranked worse than Arizona defensively at 137th according to KenPom rankings.

“Trier get’s there [the free throw line] a lot, tonight he didn’t get to the line and that’s Aaron Holiday,” UCLA head coach Steve Alford said. “People don’t give him enough credit, he does everything for us offensively. But then, oh by the way, whoever the star guard on the other team, it’s going to be Holiday’s matchup. Once again he was terrific tonight there.”

The Wildcats, twisting away in the Bahamas several months ago seemed to have figured it out. The appearance of development in terms of wins was obvious. But now this team faces more of an issue at a volatile time of the season. Do they have the confidence and wherewithal to improve before it is too late?

UCLA shot over 50 percent from the field and over 45 percent from three. It had driving lanes, threes and open-shots galore against Arizona, who was left scrambling and out of position for a majority of the night. The Bruins matched Arizona’s points in the paint with 34, not because of stellar post play, but often times in a biblical parting of the red sea that appeared after the first step of seemingly every UCLA drive to the basket.

Many questions remain and the overwhelming majority of answers, at this point of the season, point to anything but a top-tier result at the end of the year as was previously predicted. At this point what is known is Arizona is a poor defensive team. It is also one of the top teams in the country offensively. But as it was against the Bruins, it only takes an off night to make the Wildcats appear average.

“It all depends on where we go from here, obviously we have a tough stretch of games,” center Dusan Ristic said. “…I think we need to answer the bell right now. If we don’t do it, it’s going to be ugly, so it’s up to us to change something.”

Despite the hopefulness in Ristic’s voice, the concern is real. The UCLA Bruins either did Arizona a favor by slapping them back to reality, or put the first of several nails in the ’17-’18 coffin. Time will tell.


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