While ESPN focused all of its attention on the ACC, SEC and Big 10 last weekend they yet again gave little if any consideration to the best, most competitive basketball being played in the country.
In the span of three hours, UCLA's Arron Afflalo hit a contested 15-footer with four seconds to play to lift the Bruins over the Trojans 65-64. Stanford's Anthony Goods stepped back and drained a 25-footer with 3 seconds to play to lead the Cardinal in their 71-68 upset victory over Washington State. Cal's Ayinde Ubaka scored six of his 13 points in overtime to lead the Bears past Washington 77-69.
In a game that was defined by runs, Oregon produced the run that mattered most by outscoring Arizona 7-0 down the stretch to steal the victory 79-77. The winning shot came with 2 seconds left as senior guard Aaron Brooks drove to the right and made a running one handed bank shot over the outstretched arms of two Wildcats.
In a conference where protecting one's home court is imperative, the loss is a tremendous setback to the Wildcats who will now have to steal at least one extra game back when on the road. This week will be their first opportunity to get a much needed road sweep. Unfortunately, this week Arizona will be making what is considered to be the most difficult road trip in conference play as they pay a visit to the Southern California schools.
Even when Arizona was on its 12-game winning streak the prospect of being swept in Los Angeles carried some weight. Now that Arizona is struggling a bit – losers in two of their last three – their chances of getting the split or better seems almost impossible.
Thankfully, the games must be played and in a conference where anything goes this season the Wildcats have as good a chance as anyone to pull off upsets against USC and UCLA.
Wait a second, upset of USC? Yeah, a win over the Trojans this Thursday would be an upset in my book. The Trojans are playing outstanding basketball right now. Their two conference losses have come to Wazzu and UCLA with both games being decided in the closing seconds (similar to Arizona's two losses – Wazzu in overtime and Oregon at the buzzer). More so, the Trojans are not afraid of the Wildcats. USC beat Arizona in the Sports Arena last season and would love to again knock off Arizona and take claim for their first landmark win in the new Galen Center.
Sometimes for a team that has lost its way, a road trip is just what the doctor ordered. The players are removed from all their distractions at home, the team is unified through meals, meetings and shoot arounds and the coaches are able to really connect with them. For Arizona, the trip is a crucial one but perhaps could not have come at a more perfect time.
If the Wildcats were to lose both games, they would join Washington as the second preseason conference contender to be virtually eliminated from title consideration. So, in essence, they are now playing for their lives and that's a good thing. Arizona has lost two conference games by a total of six points so all is not wrong in their world. However, a loss is a loss and two more this weekend would be devastating.
If the Wildcats can get the split, then all is still very well. If they get the sweep then they're right back on track. For the Wildcats they're a good enough team to give the Trojans and the Bruins all that they can handle. Some adjustments must be made though in that their overall performance in the last three games will just not cut it in the long run.
So, before we can get to the USC and UCLA previews we need to look back to the Oregon game and analyze the good, the bad and the ugly to see where the Wildcats are succeeding and where they're coming up short:
Marcus Williams has been great of late. His free throw shooting has vastly improved (he made all 10 attempts against Oregon), he entered Sunday's game shooting 63 percent from the field in conference play, scored 34 on the Ducks, had two blocked shots and pulled down 12 rebounds. Mustafa Shakur is also playing well. He continues to find open teammates who are in position to score. Unfortunately for Shakur, unless he's dishing to Williams no one else is really hitting shots on a consistent basis in the last three games. The way Shakur is running the floor right now he could and probably should be averaging 10 assists a game as he has time and again set teammates up with wide open looks. For some reason or another though the shots just aren't falling and this is where the bad and the ugly parts come in.
Ivan Radenovic has always been known as being a bit liberal when it comes to his shot selection and this season he has thrived on his experience and aggressiveness in finding ways to attack the basket. In the last three games though Radenovic looks more tentative than a Christian walking the streets during the Roman Empire and it's disrupting the flow of Arizona's offense. Radenovic is getting open looks but he's been hesitating and allowing the defense to recover. What's left is an Arizona team scrambling to now get off a shot as the shot clock winds down. If this continues this week I seriously doubt that Arizona will beat either USC or UCLA as both play outstanding defense (especially at home). Arizona is good enough to get good shots against both the Bruins and the Trojans, but those good looks will come only once per possession. In basketball, making those shots is important but simply taking the open shots when they come is equally important – EVEN IF THEY DON'T GO IN. Basketball plays are designed for several reasons but two reasons of monumental importance are that they help your team get off a good shot attempt and they put your players in a position on the floor that provides balance - balance to send some players to the offensive glass and balance to keep other players in a position to defend against an opponent's transition game. Once a play breaks down the balance becomes out of whack and you get what Arizona got in the Oregon game, which was a series of easy transition baskets for the Ducks due to some questionable shot attempts by the Wildcats.
With 3:02 left in the Oregon game, Williams sank the second of two free throws that gave him 34 points. He didn't take another shot the rest of the game except for the final desperation attempt with one second left on the clock. THAT'S UGLY, and borderline unforgivable. How does your best player on a night when he's absolutely on fire not get another look? I don't know. I've watched the final three minutes of Sunday's game four times and it makes no sense. Call a timeout and run an isolation play for Williams on the wing. Call in a play where Williams rubs and curls off of that low block screen that we run for Budinger all the time. I can't tell you with absolute certainty that Williams' number was not called but whatever happened, he never touched the ball in a position to score on our final four possessions sans the desperation heave.
More ugly came when Radenovic grabbed the rebound with 52.3 seconds on the clock and Arizona decided it best to run out the shot clock, take a poor shot and give the ball back to the Ducks with 20 plus seconds to go in the game. Here's where I get confused. Arizona basically has five future NBA players on the floor. So, treat them like NBA players and go for a two-for-one situation. You have 17 seconds to get off a shot. Sprint the ball to half court and take a timeout. Now you're left with probably 13 seconds. Run a quick six to eight second play and take your chances. If you make the shot, then you force Oregon to tie. If you miss, then get back and play some defense. The point is that no matter what you should get the ball back with about five seconds to play and five seconds in basketball is a lifetime. Instead, Arizona walks the ball up the court and does nothing but dribble in circles for 25 seconds. When Shakur makes his break to the basket he draws the double team. Instead of getting off a shot, Shakur's pass is stolen. Did Arizona have a play on? If they did none of our players were running it.
Bottom line is I can accept not going for the two-for-one shot opportunity. After all, this is college and not pro. However, if you're not going for it, then what's the point of running out the shot clock when there's still 50 seconds to play. Why have your point guard dribble at half court for 25 seconds? Wouldn't it be better to just run your offense like normal and take the first good look that comes your way? Wouldn't that be more natural to the players? Wouldn't that be harder to defend? I mean, wouldn't it be more difficult to defend an offense that's setting and cutting off of screens, moving the ball, breaking down defenders, etcetera than standing around for 25 seconds and only having to play balls-to-the-wall defense for eight seconds in order to get the stop?
Up next for Arizona is a date with USC tomorrow night. Check back in the morning for a full preview of this game.