In the midst of a woeful defensive performance plagued by poor communication, slow rotations and inconsistent effort, Arizona practically seemed surprised at one point when Purdue missed a shot.
Neither DeAndre Ayton nor Allonzo Trier went after the rebound of an errant Carson Edwards 3-point attempt late in the first half. As a result, the ball caromed off both Wildcats and out of bounds, allowing the Boilermakers to keep possession.
That play summed up second-ranked Arizona’s 89-64 loss to Purdue, a fittingly dreadful conclusion to the Wildcats’ 0-for-3 trip to the Bahamas. Forget trouble in paradise. This was a full-blown disaster for a team with Final Four aspirations.
It started with Wednesday night’s 90-84 quarterfinal loss to NC State that left Sean Miller questioning his team’s defense. Then there was a 66-60 Thanksgiving night loss to SMU in which the Wildcats undermined any defensive improvement by turning the ball over too often and surrendering too many second-chance opportunities. On Friday, defense again was the primary issue as Purdue scored at will at the rim and from behind the arc.
Arizona has now lost three straight games for the first time since Feb. 2010 when Oregon State, Arizona State and Cal beat the Wildcats late in Sean Miller’s debut season. The question now isn’t how far Arizona will fall in next week’s AP Top 25. It’s whether the Wildcats will still be ranked at all.
Pinpointing one reason why Arizona failed to meet expectations this week isn’t easy because the Wildcats had several flaws exposed. Here’s a look at four problems facing Arizona right now:
1. POOR DEFENSE
Since Sean Miller’s third season in Tucson, Arizona has always finished among the 40 best defenses in the country. The Wildcats will need to improve significantly at that end of the floor this season to have any chance of extending that streak.
The key to defending Purdue is chasing their array of shooters over the top of screens, running them off the arc and forcing them to make plays off the dribble. Arizona utterly failed to execute that game plan as evidenced by the Boilermakers’ 57.1 percent shooting from the field, 11-for-22 shooting from behind the arc and 1.29 points scored per possession.
Friday’s game was easily Arizona’s worst defensively this season, but it was no outlier. NC State also shredded the Wildcats for 90 points and 1.23 points per possession. Heck, even lowly UMBC eclipsed one point per possession.
One issue for Arizona is they’re not forcing nearly enough turnovers. Another is that they’re consistently struggling to close out on shooters behind the arc. A third is that pairing DeAndre Ayton and Dusan Ristic in the frontcourt leaves the Wildcats vulnerable against smaller, quicker forwards who can exploit the mismatch off the dribble.
Some early defensive issues are to be expected given the number of freshmen Arizona is working into its rotation, but the Wildcats sometimes act like they’ve never defended a ball screen before. Miller will have his work cut out for him trying to get this group to even approach the level at which some of his best teams defended.
2. NOT ENOUGH OUTSIDE SHOOTING
It’s not difficult to engineer a defensive scheme when playing Arizona. You keep the Wildcats out of transition, wall off the paint and force them to try to beat you from the perimeter.
In three games in the Bahamas, Arizona sank only 10 of 54 attempts from behind the arc, an anemic 18.5 percent. They’re a better shooting team when the skilled Ristic and freshman reserves Brandon Randolph or Alex Barcello are on the floor, but they get worse in a hurry when Sean Miller opts for a better defensive lineup with Keanu Pinder alongside Ayton in the frontcourt and Emmanuel Akot or Dylan Smith seeing playing time at wing.
When Randolph either isn’t on the floor or is off target from behind the arc, it’s difficult for Arizona to space the floor and give Trier and Ayton room to operate. Driving lanes are scarce for Trier and opposing teams can risk doubling Ayton in the post, two big reasons that Trier had 12 turnovers alone in three games in the Bahamas and Ayton had six.
3. THE ABSENCE OF RAWLE ALKINS
Last year, Rawle Alkins was Arizona’s third leading scorer, a competent outside shooter and a tough, versatile defender. With the sophomore out for at least another few weeks with a fractured bone in his foot, the small forward position has thus far been a source of frustration for Arizona.
Miller has gone back and forth between Dylan Smith and Emmanuel Akot in his starting five, however, neither has really taken advantage of the opportunity. Randolph had done nothing off the bench either until finally emerging from his shooting slump against Purdue with a 17-point outburst that doubled as Friday’s lone bright spot for the Wildcats.
When Arizona gets little production out of the small forward spot, it leaves the Wildcats in need of a third scorer and it increases the pressure on Trier and Ayton to deliver. There isn’t really another threat to put up big numbers on the roster as Jackson-Cartwright is a pass-first point guard, Ristic can’t stay on the floor defensively for long stretches and the defense-first Pinder only scores on put-backs or when set up by a teammate.
The burden appears to be especially hard on Trier, who tends to drive into traffic and force tough shots when Arizona gets behind rather than looking to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. The Wildcats instead need to play through Ayton more in the post. He’s a willing passer and ultra-efficient from that spot on the floor.
4. THE SPECTER OF THE FBI INVESTIGATION
There’s no way of gauging how much of a distraction the FBI investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball is for Arizona this season, but it’s tough to believe it doesn’t weigh on the minds of the Wildcats to a certain extent.
Arizona is one of the schools at the center of the investigation along with USC, Louisville, Oklahoma State, Auburn and Miami.
The FBI alleged that former Arizona assistant Book Richardson accepted a total of $20,000 in bribes from an agent, most of which he allegedly gave to a top point guard who committed to Arizona in early August. An Adidas executive is quoted in another section of the complaint saying that a recruit believed to be five-star forward Nassir Little had been offered $150,000 to commit to Arizona.
In the complaint, aspiring agent Christian Dawkins also references not being able to get involved with a current Arizona player because he is already being paid by someone else.
So far Arizona is standing behind Miller and the school has not held out any players due to eligibility concerns, though it’s worth noting that Alkins has yet to play due to injury and was a Richardson recruit. Only Richardson is no longer with the team, robbing Miller of a longtime assistant who not only was a top recruiter but also served as a calming influence for both the players and head coach.
Given the stress Miller is under between the investigation and the current three-game losing streak, you can bet Richardson is missed in that locker room this week.
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