Arizona returns home looking to rebound from Oregon trip

Ron Chenoy - USA Today Images 2020

Gary Randazzo

Arizona received a smack in the face dose of reality during its road trip to the state of Oregon. The Wildcats were swept on the road by the Oregon schools for the first time since the 2005-2006 season. While the one-point overtime loss at then ninth-ranked Oregon demonstrated an admirable effort, the 17-point blowout at the hands of Oregon State on Sunday was a harsh reminder that this Arizona squad continues to struggle in key areas such as rebounding, all-around hustle plays, and sustainable scoring over the course of 40 minutes.

Few would have thought these would have been Arizona’s problem areas at the start of the season. The Wildcats added much needed depth, size and athleticism to a significantly shuffled roster, which added eight new faces to the team in the offseason. Among the returnees, Chase Jeter, Ira Lee and Dylan Smith were thought to be the team’s toughest, most physical contributors, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.

While Arizona’s defense has fared very well this season – aside from the second half meltdown in Corvallis – overall toughness and physicality has been lacking this year. It has showed in all five losses this season, in some form or another, as the Wildcats seem to lose the loose ball scramble far too often. Coupled with long scoring droughts, Arizona has fallen behind before it tries to rally back and make a game of things late. On Sunday, against the Beavers, the same second-half scoring swoon and lack of chase-the-ball-down intensity that had plagued Arizona in its previous four losses finally came back to truly haunt them, with Oregon State shooting an insane field goal percentage, winning the hustle plays, and basically blowing the doors off the place in a runaway victory.

No one is absent of blame or criticism, including Sean Miller and the coaching staff, but in the end it always comes down to the players. After all, the coaches can’t go onto the floor and knock down shots. They can’t get into a defensive stance, or dive on the floor for loose balls, or go and chase down a rebound. The players must be the ones to execute.

During this week’s presser, Miller intimated that there could be a shakeup in the starting lineup. If true, the key question is which players will start and which will come off the bench. Miller hinted that pretty much anyone except Zeke Nnaji is ripe for a role change.

If Miller truly wanted to send a message to the entire roster, then Nico Mannion or Josh Green would be included among current starters who may come off the bench tonight when Arizona hosts the Utah Utes. However, a more reasonable tone-setting message would be to start players in place of current starters Jeter and Smith.

If Miller wants to set a more physical tone, then it’s easy to see Lee or Jemarl Baker crack into the starting lineup. If he wants more offensive flow and skill on the court, then Stone Gettings or Max Hazzard could get the start.

Regardless of who does and doesn’t start, expect Miller and the staff to have a very short leash on every single Wildcat taking the floor. The inability of Wildcat guards not named Green to make any impact on the offensive and defensive glass has been a problem. Similarly, the inability of any Wildcat big man not named Nnaji to make an impact on the offensive end of the floor has been frustrating. The propensity for Arizona to routinely foul 3-Point shooters is borderline lunacy. Perhaps most importantly, the inability of Arizona to win loose balls on scramble opportunities is unacceptable.

Wildcat fans should see a more focused team during this week’s home stand against Utah and No. 20 Colorado. Critically, the Arizona faithful at McKale Center, one of the smartest fan bases in the country, need to be smart tonight and reward hustle plays louder than acrobatic dunks or 3-point makes. The need to reward defensive stops and players diving on the floor above all else. They undoubtedly will if the Wildcats give them reason to cheer.

Tonight’s tip against visiting Utah is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. MST. Saturday’s tip against No. 20 Colorado is set for 12:30 p.m. MST. Arizona is in a must-win situation having dropped four of the last five games this season. Arizona (11-5, 1-2 Pac-12) has little room for error moving forward considering the team has yet to win a true road game this season and an upcoming slate that features five of their next seven games on the road following this current home stand against the Utes and Buffaloes.