Yes, the Arizona Wildcats still don’t understand that a basketball game is 40 minutes long–not 5 against crummy teams, not 20 against mediocre teams and not 30 against good teams. Yes, getting swept by UCLA is in some ways like watching your dog get hit by a car. Yes, watching Bill Walton’s smug smile as his alma mater makes its come back makes you want to projectile vomit onto your HD TV.
But don’t fret. Though this was a tough one to swallow, there was a lot more good than bad that came out of Arizona’s Pac-12 Tournament appearance.
1. It’s hard to play a basketball game against a team that has 8 players on the floor
Arizona and UCLA both played hard-nosed, mano y mano, in-your-face basketball to the buzzer. Arizona outshot, outrebounded, and out-assisted the Bruins. The only difference? UCLA had three players dressed in white and black stripes and a whistle on their side.
In a game where both teams drove hard to the hoop often and played incredibly physical defense, one team got to the free throw line 21 times to the other team’s 9 in a game where neither team was playing any less aggressively than the other. The Bruins made eight more free throws than the Wildcats had attempts in a game that was won by only two points.
What’s worse is the fact that Arizona’s coach Sean Miller was called for a technical foul with less than four minutes left in the game for arguing with an official after the official called an awful double dribble call on Mark Lyons. Fact #1: All Miller said during the dispute was, “he (A UCLA player) touched the ball! He touched it!” No profanity was used. Fact #2: the official who called the technical foul was not even the official who Miller was talking to. Fact #3: UCLA made both of their free throws off of this technical foul. Fact #4: Arizona lost by two points.
2. The freshmen are stepping up at the right time.
The freshmen (Jerrett, Ashley, Tarczewski) combined for 29 points and 19 rebounds against UCLA. Against Colorado, they went for 19 points and 16 rebounds for a tournament average of 24 points and 17.5 rebounds. This is the first time in a while that all three of Arizona’s young men have played consistently well, and they are taking it up a notch right before NCAA Tournament play.
3. Johnson is back
After slumping near the end of the regular season, Nick Johnson suddenly seems to realize again just how important his performance is to the team. Besides re-establishing himself as a solid defender, Johnson has scored 45 points and had 11 assists in the last three games.
4. Spreading the wealth
Though the Wildcats have a ton of talent, they are much better when they have the patience on offense to spread the ball, let their players move around and create wide open shots. Arizona averages 14 assists per game and find themselves in the win column much more often than not when they hit their average or more. During the last two games, Arizona has averaged 16.5 assists.
There are other things too. Jordin Mayes has come out of nowhere and has decided to join the team during a crucial part of the season. Mark Lyons still plays stubborn and selfish basketball at times, but he is doing less of it (3/2 assist to turnover ratio during the tournament vs. his 3/3 season average), making better shot selection choices overall and getting back to hitting big shots in the clutch. Plus, the teammates around Lyons are learning to depend less on him and more on themselves and the team as a whole when Lyons is not playing his best.
The bottom line is the Wildcat’s performance in the Pac-12 Tournament was not a disappointment, and to the contrary, a positive momentum booster to carry into the real tournament next week. Arizona and its players are playing at a level that surpasses their average season performance, and if their performance in Hawaii has anything to say about it, that’s a good thing heading into March Madness.