Sixth-ranked Gonzaga pulled off the rare road win at No. 15 Arizona on Saturday, using 12-0 and 8-0 scoring runs after intermission to build a 80-65 lead with 2:12 remaining. The Wildcats would answer with a furious, late-game, 15-2 scoring surge to close within two points in the final seconds. However, Gonzaga’s Ryan Woolridge would sink two free throws with 1.7 seconds to play to seal the 84-80 victory for Mark Few and the Zags.
Takeaway #1: It takes a full 40 minutes to beat quality opponents
After close misses against Baylor and Gonzaga, the Wildcats should now know what it takes to beat a quality opponent. The bottom line on Saturday night in Tucson was the simple fact that Gonzaga was simply more steady and consistent over the course of 40 minutes. Despite making their final five field goals to end the game, Arizona struggled mightily from the floor. Shooting woes aside, the Wildcats clawed their way back from a 15-point deficit in the final frame to nearly steal victory from defeat. While the effort was impressive, the consistency was lacking, particularly midway through the second half when Gonzaga was slowly and steadily increasing its advantage. Similar to Arizona’s loss at Baylor, Arizona fought hard for 40 minutes, but had too many stretches where ill-advised shots on the offensive end of the floor, or lapses on the defensive end cost them in the end.
Takeaway #2: Arizona needs to play inside-out in the half court
Sean Miller is starting to sound like a broken record in press conferences as he continues to lay blame on himself for not finding more ways to get Zeke Nnaji the basketball. Nnaji, Arizona’s most efficient scorer by far this year, was 5-for-10 shooting against Gonzaga. The freshman big man was also a solid 4-for-5 from the foul line. Nnaji, in short, is a point getter and needs maximum touches night in and night out.
Along with Nnaji, fellow frontcourt starter and senior Chase Jeter has come to life in the past two weeks. Against the Zags, Jeter was 5-for-8 from the floor. Combined, the duo was 10-for-18 shooting. Hence, it’s pretty incredible to look back and realize that Arizona’s starting guards, who all had a difficult time hitting from the floor, collectively attempted 46 shots. The trio of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Dylan Smith were 12-of-46 shooting overall and a lowly 4-for-22 from the 3-Point land.
Everyone understands that bad shooting nights happen. However, there are ways to counter difficult shooting nights. First, you minimize the ill-advised shot attempts. On Saturday, there were plenty of them. Gonzaga had almost no answer when Arizona’s guards used the dribble drive to get into the painted area. Rather than explore the defense and attack off the dribble, the Wildcats seemed too quick to settle for the outside shot on far too many occasions. Second, the easiest way to create an open jumper is to feed the post and force the defense to collapse. Gonzaga knew they had to defend both Nnaji and Jeter hard in the post. A few more entry passes to the low block and the contested jump shots the Wildcats were settling for early in the possession could very well have been uncontested jumpers off kick-out passes later in the shot clock. Finally, shooting is all about balance. Granted, if a player is hot, they can all but pooch punt the ball at the rim and it will go in. However, on a tough shooting night, it’s time to get back to the fundamentals by elevating and landing on balance, and squaring up the shoulders to the rim. Both Mannion and Green are incredibly talented scorers. To the naked eye, it appears they can score while flailing their bodies. The reality is when the shots are falling, even on those pretty floaters both can sink, they are elevating on balance with shoulders square to the basket. Against the Zags, almost every Arizona guard seemed to rush their outside shots and drift off balance far too often.
Takeaway #3: Arizona is still very good, with a chance to be great this season
Wins over Baylor or Gonzaga, or both, would have certainly bolstered Arizona’s postseason resume. However, the losses aside, the talent on this team is obvious. What I like the most is the confidence of this team. It’s rare to see two true freshmen combine to attempt 35 shots in a single game, yet that’s what Green and Mannion did on Saturday. Honestly, it’s okay that they missed 27 of those attempts. It takes true confidence to keep shooting on a tough night, so they deserve props. Heck, if they had gone 10-for-35 from the floor instead of 8-for-35, the Wildcats likely would have one.
More importantly, Arizona improved from the Baylor loss to the Gonzaga loss. Arizona valued the basketball against Gonzaga, only committing six turnovers. The Wildcat bench also contributed heavily against the Zags as Max Hazzard and Jemarl Baker combined for 18 points. Nnaji was in beast mode against the Bulldogs, scoring 16 points and pulling down a career-high 17 rebounds. Jeter seems to have steadied into his role on this team as the savvy veteran who needs to do a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor.
As has been discussed, previously, it will take time for true team chemistry to come together on the floor. The Wildcats have undoubtedly showed chemistry over the course of the non-conference slate, but that chemistry still needs some gelling as the quality of the opponent increases. The team has heart. The team has obvious talent. The team has proven it has fight in them. Now, it’s simply a matter of learning from the losses to Baylor and Gonzaga, and recognizing why things weren’t clicking, at times, so they can overcome something like a bad shooting night and still find a way to win the game.