I have news for you folks. Arizona's problem isn't on defense. It's on offense as the Wildcats have too few weapons on that end of the floor.
Outside of Chase Budinger and Jerryd Bayless, too many Wildcats hesitated in pulling the trigger when the shot was there. Kansas was aware of this and did a good job in shutting down Bayless in the second half. They tried to shutdown Budinger but Budinger was playing on a different level tonight, doing a great job in exploiting the weaknesses of every Kansas defender who guarded him.
Unfortunately, in overtime, Budinger finally fell out of the "zone" and never was the same, shooting an air ball and missing the front end of a crucial one-and-one. Still, neither should take away from an incredible night by the sophomore forward whose heart and ferocity has been questioned by many fans early in this season.
Their criticism is ridiculous and Budinger proved tonight that he is of All-American caliber. Budinger finished with 27 points and five rebounds before fouling out with less than 30 seconds to play in overtime. He rarely took a shot that wasn't contested and never once backed down from the challenge posed by a Kansas defense that tried to harass him all night. Most impressively, with 1:24 to play in regulation and the game tied, Budinger was calling for the ball on the right wing. When he got it, all he did was look to score, eventually setting up his defender, driving baseline and pulling up for the 17-footer.
He nailed the shot and nearly put the nail in Kansas' coffin.
After Arizona held on defense, Nic Wise passed to the wing and cut to the basket. Kansas' Chalmers pulled a Vlade Divac in falling to the floor, an acting job which the whistle-happy referees bought. Replay shows that Wise never once extended his arm to push off Chalmers and in fact, replay shows that his elbow never even left his side. It was truly a heinous call by a heinous officiating crew that put both teams in deep foul trouble from the opening tip.
A total of 45 fouls were whistled in what was otherwise a well-played, hard fought game by both teams. Arizona drew the referees' ire 25 times while Kansas was whistled for 20 fouls. The foul calls did not affect the outcome of the game, but they certainly disrupted its flow.
Key players on both teams sat major minutes. Arizona's Hill had two fouls in the first three minutes of the game while two Kansas players had three fouls each in the first half. I'm opposed to this kind of officiating but it looks like fans of college basketball are going to have to deal with it for the rest of the season.
In overtime, Arizona's youth reared its ugly head as the more experienced Jayhawks out-executed the Wildcats in the extra session, outscoring them 14-10. Kansas scored on 4 of their first five possessions and never looked back.
A lot can be learned from this game and while Arizona is not in the business of moral victories this certainly is not a game that they should walk away from with hanging heads. Outside of the fact that they could've won the game in regulation and didn't, the Wildcats did do everything they needed to do to put themselves in a position to get a marquee victory for this team.
Arizona played outstanding team defense. Although Kansas shot 50 percent from the field, the Jayhawks rarely had an open look at the basket and had to work for nearly every score. On several occasions, it was Arizona's ineffective offense that led to some breakaway baskets for the Jayhawks that bolstered their shooting percentage. Arizona had 25 turnovers in the game, which resulted in six Kansas lay ups. Therein lies the difference in the game as just a handful of those easy shots helped keep Kansas in the game during regulation and helped them pull away in overtime.
Kansas is clearly the best team Arizona has faced this season and may be the best team they face until they play Memphis on Dec. 29. Even though Kansas was patient with the ball, Arizona did force them into 15 turnovers of their own while out-rebounding the Jayhawks 34-28. One other statistic that will never show up on a stat sheet is hustle plays. Arizona had plenty of them, which again is a testament to this team's commitment to getting after it on the defensive end.
For opponents who have played Arizona in the past three seasons, they'll be in for a rude awakening when they face these Wildcats. Arizona, despite its youth, is ready to go toe-to-toe with even the best defensive teams as evidenced by tonight's performance. Kansas is a great defensive team and Arizona rose to the challenge in matching their effort on that end of the floor. After each team scored 40 points in the first half, the two combined to score only 44 in the second half.
Both teams worked for every shot and for me, it was fun to watch. What I did notice is in this type of game, Arizona needs someone besides Budinger and Bayless to step up and create their own shot. While I love watching the team game, the Wildcats do seem to lack the offensive firepower to create mismatches against a strong defense. On the other hand, Kansas got point production from a handful of players in the closing minutes that made it more difficult for Arizona to stop Kansas than it was for Kansas to solely focus on stopping Budinger and Bayless.
This is a hard game to analyze because it was nip tuck the entire way. After falling behind 22-9, the Wildcats went on a 15-6 run of their own and from that point forward, it's hard to remember another time in the game outside of overtime where either team led by more than six.
What I liked most about Arizona is they proved that although they're young, they're not a team that will ever get intimated. I loved how Wise ran the floor at the point as he's much more aggressive in pushing tempo than Bayless. He had a costly turnover late and that questionable foul call against him, but otherwise, I thought he did a fine job. I was surprised that Daniel Dillon played so few minutes and that Laval Lucas-Perry never even saw the floor, but with five capable guards (Bayless, Wise, Dillon, Lucas-Perry and Jawann McClellan) there's going to be games when if three guys are playing well, two others will be forced to sit.
A huge concern for Arizona heading into the game was how they were going to match up with Kansas inside. Arizona started their lone true center, Kirk Walters, who saw his first minutes of the season tonight. The Wildcats out-boarded the Jayhawks by six rebounds and never looked exposed inside. Kansas did get Arizona into foul trouble but many of the fouls on Arizona's big men came out on the perimeter so that doesn't bother me so much (outside of the fouls being called in the first place). For the most part, outside of some easy, early scores, Kansas had a very difficult time feeding the post all night. Arizona fronted the post and had good weak side help, even when Arizona went with a much smaller lineup. Brielmaier did an outstanding job in replacing Hill in the middle during the first half, pulling down eight rebounds and staying out of foul trouble until very late in the game.
While some Wildcats fans may be angry with the loss, I'm not at all. I'm upset that we didn't win because I thought we had victory in our sights but this is a game that Kansas WON, not a game that Arizona LOST. I know the turnovers were bad and players missed some makeable shots down the stretch but again those are things Arizona can easily improve upon as all of the younger players continue to get real game experience. For Wise to run the point as effectively as he did against constant Kansas pressure was impressive. For Walters to pull that drop step and get to the rack without having played organized basketball since last December proved that he will be able to help this team in the future. For Budinger to play as well as he did with true grit and determination in college basketball's greatest venue and against one of the game's best defenses should assure Wildcat fans that the team does have a superstar. For Bayless to make some of the shots he did under complete duress while also knocking down all seven of his free throws tells me that Arizona has one of those special players on the court who only come around a campus once every 10 years. For Hill to battle down low against a steady rotation of thicker Jayhawks all night, have two blocked shots and grab five rebounds in only 24 minutes of action again shows that he too is a baller who is learning to play smart while battling foul trouble.
Of course, all is not rosy. Arizona needs to find a better way to get McClellan involved in the offense. I love the way interim head coach Kevin O'Neill used timeouts in the second half to set up plays for Budinger to score. With 15:42 to play in the second half, Kansas was on a 6-0 run. KO called a timeout and out of the timeout, ran Budinger off a screen that sent Budinger into the baseline corner where he nailed a wide open three-pointer. Just like that, Arizona was back on top 47-46. Similarly, with Arizona leading 51-50 and coming out of timeout, KO called for a similar play that again freed Budinger for an open three-pointer that he also made. My point is Budinger is not the only person Arizona needs to be calling plays for as McClellan is equally dangerous from behind the arc if given the opportunity. That said, McClellan needs to be more aggressive with the ball in his hands. Despite being perhaps a step slow from his former self (prior to knee injuries), he's still a step quicker than most. Tonight he was two of four from the floor. I'm sorry but a player as skilled as JMac should be getting many more than four shots a night.
Now, for the major hiccup in overtime. With 40.5 seconds to play and Arizona trailing by six points, the freshman Bayless drove to the basket and made a LeBron James-esque shot while being mugged. Somehow, he muscles the ball into the basket and finished off the three-point play by making the free throw. There was a five second differential between the game clock and the shot clock. The way Arizona was playing defense for the entire game, I liked Arizona's chances of playing out the clock on defense and forcing the Jayhawks to score. Instead, a miscommunication from the Arizona sidelines saw Budinger intentionally commit his fifth foul which not only sent Arizona's best offensive weapon to the bench, but sent Kansas to the free throw line where they made both free throws. This was a mistake, but one not worth piling on KO for. He apologized to Budinger for the confusion and while that doesn't make everything right, the whole thing really did look like a miscommunication and nothing more. It was a gaffe, but just like Arizona's players, the coaching staff is now also a tad inexperienced without Olson on the bench and it definitely showed late as Arizona did few things right in the overtime session.
Overall, I'm pleased with Arizona's effort and am very pleased with the direction of this team. I love what O'Neill, Josh Pastner and Miles Simon have done with the younger players and I love how the bench is being utilized. I would've liked to have seen more of Dillon tonight and I really wanted to see how Lucas-Perry was going to play in Lawrence but with Wise and Bayless playing well, I'm not second guessing their absence tonight.
While a loss is still a loss, this is not a losing team. Arizona took one on the chin tonight and you can tell it stung the players. Budinger in no way looked like a player who was happy with scoring 27 points in a loss and others like Bayless, Wise, Hill, and even Lucas-Perry on the bench looked like guys who knew that they let a potential huge win slip through their fingers.
Congratulations to Kansas as they're as classy a team as there is. The rivalry between Arizona and Kansas is one of the better inter-conference rivalries in the nation because the fans are classy, the teams are classy, the history of each school is as rich as there is, and every game played between the two is always played at an extremely high level.