The UCLA Bruins and Arizona Wildcats put on a good show on a national stage Saturday night. With millions watching on ESPN, the game was fast-paced, star-studded, intense and exciting.
UCLA, behind the stellar play of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew II, proved to be a bit too much for Arizona. The Bruins drove the Wildcats to yet another loss late in the Pac-12 season.
The game had many implications. UCLA, after starting the season slow and looking overrated, now are a solid team squarely in the hunt for the Pac-12 crown. In contrast, what seemed to be a foregone conclusion to start the season, that the Wildcats would win the Pac-12, is now all but lost. With Arizona at 11-6 in the conference and reeling after its fourth loss in seven games, this game was a reality check for Arizona.
There were also lessons learned. As the Wildcats try to regroup for the upcoming matchup with ASU, here is what the game with UCLA taught us and how it can be used for the rest of the season.
From his postgame quotes it seems Sean Miller was very impressed with his team's loss. I've never seen Miller so satisfied with losing. The University of Arizona Official Athletics quoted Miller saying:
"I have a much better feeling after this game than I had the other night against USC, just because we played at a much higher level...I love the fact we fought back hard and gave ourselves an opportunity to win."
Using the word "love" to describe a loss to UCLA is a foreign concept to most Arizona fans. Then, to the same source, Miller said:
"It would be difficult for any team to come in here today and win...We battled back in the second half and to see Grant Jerrett do what he did as a freshman gives me a lot of hope here down the home stretch."
Since Bill Walton left in the early 1970s, I don't remember Pauley Pavilion being such a difficult place to win that teams left so happy to have just competed with the Bruins. But maybe the renovations have conjured Lew Alcindor's spirit and now leave opponents grateful to get out alive.
Miller's positive vibes rubbed off on the players too. Grant Jerrett said:
"I thought we played well as a team and much better than the SC game...(Miller) said we played much better with more heart and more focus."
Kevin Parrom too, as quoted by azstarnet.com:
"I'm gonna keep telling you: I still hate losing, but I can accept guys playing hard at the end of the game. Guys tried. And I'll take that. Guys battled. I can live with that."
This is a strange disposition that I'm not sure I like, but I am not sure it is wrong. While it was still a loss, there was a lot of positives to take away from the game. However, it is odd to see the entire team be so open about a moral victory.
One reason Sean Miller may be so happy was the play of his junior. The best Wildcat point guard on the floor in Saturday night's loss to UCLA was easily Jordin Mayes. He scored eight points on 3-of-6 shooting, dished out two assists and played good defense. He ran the team well and only really made one big mistake (fouling Jordan Adams on a three-pointer).
Mayes was the quintessential point guard against UCLA. He was confident and composed. He took the open shots given to him and created a couple of his own but didn't force. He got good looks for his teammates and then played smart defense on Larry Drew II.
Contrast this with Mark Lyons who shot 5-of-15, had five turnovers, only one assist and a series of really stupid plays and there really was no comparison.
The junior Mayes, who gets into the game six minutes less than he did last season, would be a nice addition to the March lineup for Sean Miller.
Overall Mayes was really good and was a breath of fresh air. While it would make sense to start inserting him into the game more, Sean Miller's lineup decisions are always an exercise in confusion. Moving forward, Mayes could be a real asset to the Wildcats as the team tries to stop the bleeding.
The final total of 69 points may not say so, the number of turnovers may not either and neither would the field goal percentage, but the Wildcats offense looked good on Saturday night.
Throughout the season the Wildcats have gotten bogged down on the offensive side of the ball. In games against Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Cal, getting a good shot looked impossible. Movement has been stagnant, passing has not been with a purpose and buckets have not been easy to come by. For long stretches in most games, Arizona's offense was so awkward and forced it was miraculous to get to 70 points.
This game was different. Passing from the start was crisp and actually had a purpose. The ball moved quickly and precisely, and open shots were created. Both big guys and the guards were involved, and the Arizona offense was actually fun to watch. Points, maybe for the first time in the Pac-12 season, were coming easy. And against a good defensive team as well.
So why the low total of 69 points? Because, like all season, the Wildcats make really bad decisions with the ball with terrible shot selection and turnovers. Arizona turned the ball over 16 times. UCLA only turned it over eight times, and four of those were in the last three minutes.
Now, many times turnovers come because the offense is struggling or the opposing defense is great. This wasn't the case. So many of the Wildcats turnovers were just bad decisions, which had nothing to do with UCLA pressure or defense.
One example: Late in the game, Nick Johnson got a steal and instead of passing the ball to run a set, he lost the ball trying to dribble between defenders. Mark Lyons did the same thing in the first half. Too many unforced errors by Arizona leaders plague this team.
Then, Arizona's shot selection is extremely poor—too many threes without running offense and too many forced shots in the lane trying to get a foul. Good shots will come if the Wildcats can play like they did on Saturday. They just need to be patient.
While it is hard to be positive after the second loss to UCLA, if the Wildcats could work on reducing unforced turnovers as well as taking higher quality shots, this offense could become potent. Late in the season it may be hard to change these things around, but if it does happen, watch out.
Another reason for Miller's optimism must be the play of Grant Jerrett. For most of the season, Jerrett has taken a big back seat to all the guys on Arizona's loaded roster. He has been timid and deferential, and at most times he has been this way to a fault. It looks like it has been difficult for him to find his place on the team.
In Saturday night's game, however, with the bright lights shining, Jerrett was definitely Arizona's star. He led the team with 14 points, while knocking down four of five from long distance. He added five boards, a block and an assist to his stat line.
Maybe most impressive for Jerrett was how it happened. On national television, on the road, in the largest crowd since the renovation of Pauley Pavilion, with a Pac-12 title on the line, Jerrett played his best basketball of the season.
He looked comfortable, never forced or rushed, never took a bad shot and made good decisions with the ball. Whenever the Wildcats needed a big shot, it was Jerrett who was making it. Of his 14 points, 12 of them came in the last 15 minutes of the game. Four of his rebounds came in that time period, three of them being on the offense glass.
While it is hard to say he took over the game because the Wildcats lost, he did take over the Wildcats offense. He single-handedly kept this game close.
In watching Jerrett all season, his trouble has been understanding how he fits into this team. For the first time this season, Grant Jerrett looked like he found his place.
For Arizona fans, this is a huge development. If Jerrett can continue to play with confidence and let his skills and talent shine through, Arizona improves one of its biggest deficiencies (offense) and becomes a markedly better team.
Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons combined for 10 turnovers (five each) and only 20 points on 8-of-22 shooting. The Wildcats cannot win with performances like this from their leaders and two biggest scorers.
Mark Lyons as a player can be summed, in totality, in just a few moments late in the first half against the Bruins. He scores to bring the Wildcats within two. He gets in Larry Drew's face, claps a bunch and talks some trash. Just a minute later, when the Wildcats tie the game, he gets a pass, starts a one-on-three fast break (with himself as the one), attempts to run through two Bruins (that doesn't work), Larry Drew Two takes the ball from him, and assists to Kyle Anderson on a three point play.
Lyons is a really talented player, and I like what he brings. He plays with passion, confidence and a nastiness that has won Arizona a bunch of games this year. And these are the traits that make him effective.
Yet the mindless plays like the one described above need to stop. Pausing to think every once in a while wouldn't take away his passion, confidence and nastiness. It is just a little smarter.
He has been playing basketball close to 20 years. He must know that running into the middle of a bunch of the opposing players is a bad idea. Plays like this explain how a guy ends up with five turnovers for the third time since the Pac-12 season started.
He also shoots too much when he is having a bad night. I am all for a "heat check" here and there, but there is a time and a place for that. The time and place for jacking up a long three without running any offense isn't Pauley Pavilion, late in the second half, while attempting to come back. Lyons is a senior leader on this team, and overall he must make better decisions.
The problem with Hill's game is the opposite. He doesn't shoot enough. Now, in the UCLA game he might have some excuse because he was defending one the nation's great scorers and was in foul trouble, but seven shots is not enough.
Hill, in every game, should be attacking and take at least 13 shots. I've said this many times this year: When he is aggressive, every player on the team is better. Even if he isn't connecting, by making himself a threat, the defense must take into account one of the most versatile players in the country.
When he sits back, lets the game pass him by and shoots a three here or there, the Wildcats hurt for it. If Arizona is to reach its potential, Solomon Hill must be involved and in attack mode from the start. Hopefully he can use the Wildcats loss as a lesson to improve this team moving into the final stages of the season.