Saturday’s 63-58 loss to the No. 18 Baylor Bears should bring forward plenty of teaching moments for Sean Miller and the Wildcat coaching staff. The Wildcat offense, best described as impatient against the Bears, shot 26.9 percent from the floor on 14-of-52 field goal tries. Worse, Arizona was a lowly 2-for-18 (11.1%) from behind the 3-Point arc.
The lesson learned should be one of patience. In a true road game against a team known for its stout defense, the last thing the Wildcats needed to do on Saturday was take quick shots. They did. Well over half of Arizona’s shot attempts against the Bears came in the first half of the shot clock. That type of attacking offense is fine when shots are falling, but they weren’t at Baylor’s Ferrell Center.
A more prudent approach, particularly on the road, in a game where the offense is struggling, is continuing to work the defense to the point where a dribble drive attack can get wing players into the lane, draw fouls, create free throw opportunities, as well as offensive rebounding chances where the motion of the offense is going toward the basket.
This almost happened as smart halftime adjustments did result in some improvement.
In the second half, Arizona made 21-of-24 free throws. In the first half, the Wildcats only attempted 10 free throws.
Granted, Arizona (9-1, 0-1 away) is an attacking offense that excels in the open court, as well as its secondary break offense. However, Baylor (7-1, 4-0 home) was clear in its mindset that they were going to try and take that away from Arizona. They did.
Arizona’s starting guards combined to shoot 7-of-31 from the floor. Aside from Mannion making all eight of his free throw tries, the rest of the Wildcat guards only attempted five total free throws. On a day when the driving lanes could have opened up later in the shot clock, Arizona was too impatient to wait and it cost them dearly.
The reason is Arizona’s own defense was excellent.
After an early start where the Bears were shooting at a 50.0 percent clip, the Wildcats got stingy over the game’s final 30 minutes. Overall, Arizona would limit Baylor to 17-of-56 shooting (30.4%), good enough to outscore the Bears by six points after intermission.
Defensively, Arizona’s efficiency should have been enough for the victory. However, a folly of sorts seemed to permeate throughout all 40 minutes of live action as Baylor outworked Arizona for loose balls, won the rebounding edge 40-33, and forced Arizona into more turnovers than made field goals.
The good news is Arizona still had a chance to win, getting a contested look by Josh Green from behind the 3-Point arc in the closing seconds that would have tied the game. That, in and of itself, was an amazing accomplishment.
The second lesson is Arizona players were caught standing around far too many times. Worse, this happened on both ends of the court. As Wildcat guards were left flat-footed, watching the big men battle on the boards, the tip outs and loose balls were being chased down by the Bears.
It’s the little things like that, that cost teams wins on the road, or coveted wins in the conference or NCAA tournaments.
Miller, undoubtedly, will not let the standing around and watching go unchecked.
Finally, Arizona’s big men struggled all game against the double team.
Although they have faced double teams in the past, Saturday’s version of double team defense came against a Top 25 team at their place. Zeke Nnaji, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds, had four turnovers. Chase Jeter and Ira Lee had two turnovers apiece. That’s far too many giveaways from the frontcourt rotation, especially since the trio did not produce a single assist against Baylor.
Assists matter for the specific reason that Arizona knew before tipoff that Baylor would be trapping catches by the big men. The Achilles Heel of Baylor’s defense is going up against big men that can keep their composure and make passes out of the low block. The only big man to have an assist for the Wildcats was reserve, and little used, center Christian Koloko, who after Saturday, needs to see more minutes. The 7-footer had two assists, including a nifty behind-the-back bounce pass for a layup from the low post.
Finally, in a game where both teams were struggling mightily to score the basketball, it’s no surprise that Arizona only had seven assist. Troubling, however, is two were from Koloko and the remaining five were from Nico Mannion. With nine Wildcats taking the floor on Saturday, only having two players assist on scores is almost unbelievable. By comparison, Baylor also went nine deep, yet seven of the nine had at least one assist for the game.
Overall, despite only making 2-of-19 field goals to close the game, the reality is Arizona did have a chance to win. Assuming the Wildcats learn from this loss, that certainly bodes well for a team playing in its first true road game of the season.
The practice week was a mess, with Nico Mannion missing time for back spasms and Josh Green seeing limited practice while battling strep throat. Reliable reserve forward Stone Gettings was also out of practice (and the game), recovering from a facial bone fracture and concussion suffered at the Wooden Legacy Tournament.
Adding insult to injury was a mid-morning tip time, which is never easy for any west coast team traveling east.
The Wildcats definitely showed grit and determination, but they needed more headiness and toughness against Baylor. The Bears were clearly finishing offensive and defensive possessions better than the Wildcats, and that’s something Arizona must learn to do better as the season progresses.
Saturday was the first of three difficult games. After hosting Nebraska-Omaha this upcoming Wednesday in Tucson, Arizona will play No. 9 Gonzaga at McKale Center next Saturday, and then a neutral site game against a St. John’s team that handed West Virginia its first loss of the season at the same time the Wildcats were losing their first game of the year.
- Wednesday, December 11: Nebraska-Omaha, Pac-12 Networks
- Saturday, December 14: #9 Gonzaga, ESPN2
- Saturday, December 21: St. John’s (Naismith Hall of Fame Al Attles Classic in San Francisco), ESPN2