The trap was set Wednesday night for Arizona basketball. The Wildcats were playing a team they beat by 24 earlier in the year and the big matchup against UCLA was coming a few days later. Arizona fell into that trap and lost to the Trojans.
The Wildcats now have one way to get out of Los Angeles with some sense of satisfaction: beat the UCLA Bruins. Here we review five keys to avoid the sweep in L.A.
The first game between these two teams was over before the second TV timeout. The Bruins started the game up 19-3 and coasted to an 83-72 victory in Tucson. The Wildcats stumbled out of the gate, and while they made up some ground, they could never entirely close the gap.
If Arizona is to compete this time around, starting in a double-digit hole isn't an option. While the Wildcats showed an ability to come back earlier in the season, that ability seems to be lost. Where they once could come back against teams like Florida, now they can't do the same against USC.
So how can the Wildcats avoid the early hole they have seen so often this year? From the get-go, they must play with the energy of a team on the brink. From the the opening tip, they must scratch and claw like a team who is near falling from first to fifth in the Pac-12 (which they are).
For once this season. Arizona needs to start the game like the season is on the line. If the Wildcats don't, it just might be.
At key stretches in the first meeting between these two teams, when Arizona needed a stop and UCLA needed a basket, Shabazz Muhammad was there to put the ball through the hoop. He finished the game with 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting.
Arizona needs to do a better job this time. Whether it be denying him the ball, switching up defenders or switching defenses at some point, Muhammad should be a key for the Arizona defense.
But the Wildcats have a very good tool to slow him down: Solomon Hill. Hill is big enough to body up with Muhammad and quick enough, because Muhammad doesn't have elite quickness, to stay in his face. Miller needs to find some way to keep Hill on this awesome freshman.
If Shabazz scores closer to 15 than 25, this will be a very good sign for the Wildcats.
Arizona shot 24 threes against UCLA in the first outing. Even more incredible than the number of attempts was that the Wildcats only made five of the 24, a dismal 20.8 percent.
Even if they had made more of the attempts, that is just a staggering number of three-pointers to shoot. It shows a team which is unable to get good shots and which is impatient on the offensive side of the ball. Unless threes are wide open, which they were not in this game, they are the lazy way out.
Instead, Arizona needs to get good shots. This has been very difficult for them for a good part of the season. Playing less one-on-one basketball and passing the ball is a good place to start. Too much of the offense is Mark Lyons, Hill or Nick Johnson simply coming off a ball screen and forcing the issue down the lane. By the end of the game, teams are stopping this and forcing lots of three-point attempts.
Feeding the ball inside to someone other than Kaleb Tarczewski, using the skill sets of Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett and getting Johnson involved earlier are good ways to get the offense revved up. There are lots of things that can be done, but shooting more than 20 threes on Saturday night is a clear path to a loss.
Game in and game out, turnovers have been a problem for Arizona. The Wildcats will play solid basketball for long stretches. They will be intelligent and confident. But then at other times, the wheels fall off and the team looks lost. Bad shots are taken and then the turnover bug sets in.
At this point, Arizona isn't good enough on either side of the ball to be losing points in this way. Earlier in the season, it could get away with 27 turnovers against Southern Miss (who is actually a darn good team), but not now. Arizona really struggles to score and giving away possessions makes this task even harder.
Add to this that UCLA is a very good team, and lots of turnovers will mean a loss. In the first game against the Bruins, the Wildcats committed 14 turnovers, nine of those coming from Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill. In the coming matchup, the Wildcats need their senior leaders to hold onto the ball and make good decisions. If not, Arizona will leave L.A. with the kind of sweep no team wants to have.
If told that in March of any season that a Sean Miller basketball team would be a bad defensive team, most fans wouldn't believe it. For most of his career, Miller has hung his hat on the defensive side of the ball.
But the truth is, at this point in the season, Arizona is a bad defensive team. In Wednesday's loss to the USC Trojans, the Wildcats allowed one of the worst shooting teams in the nation to shoot over 60 percent from the field.
For long stretches of that game, Arizona looked helpless. Open shot after open shot went down and Arizona could do nothing to stop them. USC looked like it was playing its little brother. Or like a pro team playing a college team. The Trojans made everything and Arizona did little to get in their way.
And this was done by guys no one has ever heard of: Eric Wise, J.T. Terrell and Byron Wesley. Now Arizona faces Shabazz Muhammad, the Wear twins, Larry Drew II, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. If USC looked like a pro team, UCLA is going to look like the 1987 Showtime Lakers.
If Arizona is going to win, adjustments need to be made of the defensive side of the ball. It is scary to say this so late in the season, but there is no doubt about it. The Wildcats have stopped playing fundamental defense. They jump wildly at every shot fake instead of playing down and boxing out after an attempt.
More than any other issue, the Wildcats reach and reach (and reach) instead of just cutting off the lane by sliding their feet. The Wildcats overplay nearly everything, and as a result it is incredibly easy to get the ball in the lane against them. This is a recipe for disaster. It causes breakdowns on every possession and leads to good shots by the other team.
If you look at the game possession by possession, you can see this happening. Arizona comes out with great ball pressure and hawks the ball, and the energy is great and fun to watch. But because there is so much overplay, the defender will get beaten, there will be a mad scramble to cover open guys and inevitably there will be an open shot.
The Wildcats must fix their defensive woes and play some fundamental defense. Otherwise, UCLA is going to torch Arizona for the second time this season.