Thursday night’s 57-48 loss at the hands of USC was like watching a Greek tragedy unfold in the land of Troy. The setback aside, Arizona played zone defense for sustained stretches in both the first and second half, including in the final minutes of a close game
What message was Sean Miller sending to his team? It’s a valid question, considering Miller despises zone defense.
Every once in a blue moon, Miller puts his Wildcats in a zone defense for more than a single possession. It tends to happen on nights when his team is playing soft. Remember when Jimmer Fredette dropped 49 on Arizona to establish the single-game scoring record at McKale Center in 2009. It was Miller’s first season in Tucson, and probably the first time Miller deployed a zone defense to send his own Wildcats a message about toughness.
Following Arizona’s overtime loss to Oregon last weekend at home, Miller did not specifically call out his Wildcats for toughness, but did outline several possessions in that game that eluded to the fact that, in his opinion, Oregon was the tougher, more physical team.
At USC, the 2-3 zone defense Arizona deployed seemed to be some sort of signal that Miller was dissatisfied with his Wildcats. While Arizona did rebound well out of the zone, they also allowed a wide open Jonah Matthews to step cleanly into a 3-Pointer with less than three minutes remaining that basically wrapped up the game for the Trojans.
Love him or hate him, Miller prides his teams on being the tougher team, the type of team that opponents know will walk away battered, bruised, and often defeated. Despite some difficult losses in non-conference play, Arizona did show grit and determination in falling to teams like Baylor and Gonzaga. However, the neutral site loss to St. John’s seemed to trigger the Wildcats into something less than the tough, physical team they can and should be.
On Thursday, that toughness was completely gone.
Arizona looked flat. They looked uninspired. They played disoriented basketball. They finished the night with 15 turnovers and only 16 made shots in 57 attempts. It’s the second time this month the Wildcats ended up shooting less than 30 percent from the floor. This from a team that entered the game leading the Pac-12 Conference at 78 points per game.
The zone, at least to this reporter, seemed like a penalty for Arizona’s softness on both ends of the floor. Offensively, two Wildcat big men, following the catch in the low post, literally fell to the floor on initial contact from the defender. Defensively, USC shot 43 percent from the floor, which is not eye-popping, but is really the only reason why the Trojans did not win by more than nine points.
The Wildcats did very little to negate USC’s intentionally methodical offense. Even though the Trojans struggled to score points in bunches, a stifling Arizona defense was not the reason. The Wildcats did do a good job producing defensive deflections and actually had 10 steals, but the majority of the game USC was able to control tempo and run 20-25 seconds off the game clock on offensive possessions.
It was as if Miller had finally had enough and said, if you don’t want to pressure the basketball then go ahead and sit back in a zone.
It will be interesting to see what happens next.
Arizona travels to UCLA to play one of the hottest teams in the conference on Saturday. Worse, the Bruins, under Mick Cronin, are one of the more physical teams in league. Across town, in Westwood on Thursday, UCLA outrebounded Arizona State 41-27 in a 75-72 win that has catapulted the Bruins into a tie for first place. Even worse than that is this is the same UCLA team that held Arizona to the worst shooting performance by any Wildcat team in the history of the McKale Center just three weeks ago.
Do the Wildcats respond to the challenge and rise to the occasion, or will they wilt under pressure? Against USC, the Wildcats wilted to the point that they were playing a zone defense with the game’s outcome still in doubt.