For some teams, a 14-0 start is not the best solution for success later in the season. It gives them the false sense of security that change, improvement and evolution are not necessary for them because they’ve already got it. They take for granted the fact that luck was highly responsible for several of their wins and instead take it to mean they can come back from any game, anywhere and at any time they want in the future–that falling behind early and taking plays off on defense is ok. It allows them to over-rely on their playmakers to do it all and their playmakers over-rely on themselves to do it all as well. It gives the coach a feeling of stubborn flawlessness.
The Arizona Wildcats (23-6, 11-6) is one of those teams this season.
In the first half of the season, Arizona went 14-0 and beat five top 50 RPI teams (Miami, Florida, San Diego State, Southern Miss and Colorado). Though there was a lot to be happy about, the warning signs were there–it’s just that no one really wanted to talk about them at the time and ruin the euphoric Zona daze everyone was in, including myself. In many of their games, Arizona relied heavily on their playmakers, such as Mark Lyons, to come from behind and make clutch shots for the win. Luck was a big factor in helping us win a few games, and had a few plays gone differently, Arizona would not have had the non-conference resume they can boast of today. Game after game, it became readily apparent the Wildcats’ freshmen were not developing at a desirable rate. But it was of no matter. After all, Arizona was 14-0.
Fast forward to the second half of the season. After feeling invincible, Arizona has not improved, changed or evolved. They have allowed themselves to fall behind in games and, unlike earlier games, have not been able to come back because they are now facing teams that have improved, changed and evolved. Freshmen, lacking development, have relied heavily on playmakers and playmakers have relied too heavily on themselves. Coach Miller’s stubborn refusal to make major adjustments have allowed other coaches with good guards to pick his predictable game-plan apart.
Arizona’s 74-69 loss to UCLA was a good example. Not unlike the Wildcats’ first game against the Bruins, Arizona simply fell behind by too much to get it back. Though Grant Jerrett had a career game (14 points), this was an outlier for the freshmen considering Jerrett usually averages only five points per game, Brandon Ashley had no points against UCLA and Kaleb Tarczewski–though improving slightly–had two critical turnovers and missed two easy but critical shots with limited touches. Putting too much weight on their shoulders as playmakers, Solomon Hill and Lyons were an awful 36% from the floor (14% from three point range) and had 10 of the team’s 16 turnovers. Down by only three with less than twenty seconds left, Lyons tried to take matters into his own hands and completely messed it up. Regardless of the fact UCLA’s Larry Drew II (14 points, 9 assists) ran circles around our defense when Lyons was in and was contained when Jordin Mayes played in Lyon’s place, Miller refused to keep Lyons out of the game when it was clear he was having a terrible performance on both ends of the floor; Lyons played for 31 minutes and Mayes (8 points, 50% from the floor) played for 13. Despite Arizona’s terrible defensive decline, Miller refuses to implement any occasional plan B–aka zone–when it is clear his man-to-man is turning into a disaster. At this point in the season, it is probably too late.
As a result, Arizona is 9-6 in the latter half and have not beaten a top 50 RPI team. In other words, the Wildcats have not beaten one Pac-12 team in the second half of the season that will be in the NCAA Tournament.
Scared? Yeah, me too.