On a day when two other top-10 teams lost on the road, No. 7 Arizona became the latest victim when it fell at Oregon State, 58-56, at Gill Coliseum on Sunday night. The loss was the Wildcats’ second in their last three games away from Tucson, Ariz., and served as the latest indication that Arizona may not be as well equipped to advance deep into March as it was last season.
Neither team opened up a lead bigger than four points after the break, but Arizona could not create any separation from an Oregon State team that has labored offensively for most of the season. After freshman Stanley Johnson knocked down a three around the 5:45 mark to give Arizona a 50-47 lead, the Wildcats struggled to stop Malcolm Duvivier down the stretch.
The sophomore guard broke down Arizona’s defense with dribble penetration and scored seven points over a four-minute span (four off layups, three off free throws) to put Oregon State in position to spring the upset. A late Gabe York three kept the Wildcats’ hopes alive, but Oregon State junior guard Langston Morris-Walker converted a layup with under 30 seconds remaining, and McConnell missed a jumper on the other end.
The most concerning aspect of the loss is that the Wildcats couldn’t get stops when they needed them. The Arizona team that was a No. 1-seed last year was defined by relentless defense (it led the nation in Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency) and was often able to survive cold shooting nights because it locked down opponents so effectively.
This year’s team has been one of the best defensive groups in the country to date (it ranks eighth nationally in adjusted efficiency), yet it allowed Oregon State to shoot 51.3 percent from the field.
Sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson got 10 of his game-high 14 points at the free-throw line for Arizona, and McConnell chipped in 13 points to go with six assists and six rebounds, yet Johnson managed only seven points on four shots in 26 minutes and no other Wildcat starter had more than five.
It’s worth noting that this game was played at a slow pace. Per Ken Pomeroy’s accounting, it featured 55 possessions -- seven fewer than any other game the Wildcats have played in this season. But the Beavers scored an average of 1.05 points on those possessions (compared to 1.02 for Arizona). Consider that the Wildcats’ held their first two conference opponents, Arizona State and Oregon, to 0.72 and 0.86 points per possession. Both of those teams sport better adjusted offensive efficiency ratings than Oregon State.
This marks a signature win for a Beavers team that lost most of its key contributors from last season and went through a coaching change. Oregon State probably won’t make the NCAA tournament in former Montana coach Wayne Tinkle’s first year, but the Beavers have outperformed expectations and there’s cause for optimism with a strong recruiting class on the way for next season.
For Arizona, the loss suggests that the Wildcats may no longer be the clear-cut favorite to win the Pac-12. In the preseason, Arizona was considered such an obvious frontrunner that it received all but one first-place vote in the conference preseason media poll, but Utah has made a compelling case that the Pac-12 is far from a one-horse race.
The No. 9 Utes have opened conference play with three blowout wins over USC, UCLA and Colorado and have been slightly better defensively than Arizona to date. The good news is the two teams will meet at the McKale Center next Saturday. Whether Arizona will fare better in that matchup than it did Sunday in Corvallis is up for conjecture. A tune-up two days prior against Colorado should provide a good indication.