Arizona has plenty of shoes to fill Saturday at UCLA
In less than a week, Arizona went from a pretty good team with high potential closing out the regular season to a club struggling to simply execute the basics. It’s as if the overtime loss to Oregon last Saturday in Tucson was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
To recover, Arizona needs to find answers in a lot of key areas before the regular season really gets away from them.
The Wildcats (19-9, 9-6 Pac-12) are set to visit UCLA on Saturday in what basically amounts to an elimination game for Arizona. Following an Arizona loss at USC and a UCLA home win over Arizona State on Thursday, suddenly it’s the Wildcats looking up at the Bruins in the conference standings. Earlier in February, it was the opposite as the upset-minded Bruins shocked Arizona at McKale Center, 65-52.
The Bruins (18-11, 11-5 Pac-12) have now won six-straight games and eight of their last nine to race into a three-way tie for first place. Arizona has dropped two straight and now sits a game-and-a-half back of the Bruins and Ducks.
To beat UCLA on its home floor, Arizona needs to start executing on both ends. Easier said than done. Importantly, Arizona suddenly has some big shoes to fill.
Forget about the fact that starting forward Josh Green is back home in Tucson trying to overcome a lower back sprain, or that Max Hazzard’s status for Saturday remains in doubt due to “personal reasons”. The undermanned Wildcats have bigger problems to solve.
First, Arizona needs to find a second or third scorer to compliment the steady contributions from Zeke Nnaji.
Second, Arizona needs to find a defensive stopper at any level of the defense.
Third, Arizona needs to find an outside shooter who can knock down open shots.
Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, Arizona needs to find an emotional leader to wake this team up and get them back on their feet.
On Thursday at USC’s Galen Center, the only Wildcats who seemed to care were Sean Miller and his assistant coaches. With Miller directing action from the sidelines and the assistant coaches clapping and trying to fire up the players in and out of timeouts, the actual players required to put in the work seemed emotionless and uninspired.
This isn’t to say the players weren’t trying. They were. In fact, Nico Mannion went so far as to slam the basketball twice on his way back to the huddle during a timeout.
Instead, the players look frustrated and that’s entirely understandable. The Wildcats only made 3-of-26 3-Point attempts against the Trojans and shot just 28.1 percent from the floor. Where the frustration is obvious is Thursday night’s shooting performance wasn’t even Arizona’s worst of the season. That honor is credited to the Bruins who limited the Wildcats to just 25.4 percent shooting. Where things get truly maddening is according to statistician Key Pomeroy, Arizona ranks near the very bottom of 300-plus Division I teams in “Luck”. An example was USC’s Onyeka Okongwu hitting a 60-foot desperation shot at the end of the first half to give the Trojans a 26-21 halftime advantage over Arizona.
So much has seemed to go against this team this year that only the team itself can figure out the right way to actually right the ship. A road win at UCLA would certainly do the trick, but that almost seems impossible right now.
The Wildcats somehow need to find it in what will undoubtedly be a hostile road environment as more and more Bruins fans have finally begun to swarm to home games now that UCLA is winning again. Mannion and the guards need to be stronger with the basketball and figure out ways to get dribble penetration, while Nnaji and the Wildcat big men need to play physical inside and not look to the officials every time there is contact.
If they don’t, then the early February loss to the grittier Bruins will feel like a kiss on the cheek compared to what UCLA is capable of doing to Arizona this time around.