In a game that saw Arizona play improved defense, their offense sputtered. The Wildcats committed 17 turnovers with seven of those coming from point guards Jerryd Bayless and Nic Wise. Despite shooting a respectable 48.1% from the field, Arizona never looked comfortable facing Virginia coach Dave Leitao's defense-first Cavaliers who pressured the Wildcats for 40 minutes.
Defensively, Arizona did what interim head coach Kevin O'Neill asked of them in keeping Virginia's scorers out of the paint. The Cavaliers reacted to Arizona's stingy defense by pulling up from behind the arc and making eight of 11 three-point attempts in the first half. They would finish the game 12-21 from long range, led by the sharp shooting of freshman guard Jeff Jones who made five of seven from deep.
Offensively, Arizona scored, but it was in bunches followed by long stretches of wasted possessions due to turnovers and shots taken too early in the shot clock.
With 26.5 seconds remaining and the Wildcats trailing 73-72, Arizona forced Virginia into a five-second violation as they failed to inbound the ball. Arizona, with the game on the line, then returned the favor and turned the ball over on their ensuing inbounds attempt. Virginia added two free throws to extend their lead to three and with the final seconds melting away, Arizona took three shots at the basket before the ball finally went out of bounds with 0.6 on the clock.
The loss is a tough pill to swallow, but certainly isn't one worth choking on.
The Wildcats matched Virginia's intensity on defense the entire game. They also made clutch shots throughout the game that halted Virginia runs, or ignited runs of their own.
Daniel Dillon got the start in place of Jamelle Horne and made the most of his opportunity. Bayless proved that he's not afraid to take the big shots and Wise proved that he's a much better defender than originally thought. Jordan Hill got the better of a handful of Virginia big men and Jawann McClellan continued to display the athleticism on both offense and defense that once made him a five-star recruit.
Arizona's hard work in the off season to improve their defense shows. At one stretch late in the second half the following sequence of events took place: Trailing the Cavaliers 66-59, Arizona's scores to cut the lead to five. Out of a Virginia timeout, Arizona's defense picked up high and forced a steal for a breakaway dunk. Score, 66-63. On the next Virginia possession, Hill takes a defensive charge. Arizona fails to score but again on defense, Dillon forces a steal and feeds ahead to Bayles for a Dunk. Score, 66-65. Bayless then gets another Arizona steal, but misses both free throws. Arizona then forces another Virginia turnover while again failing to score. With 5:12 to go, Arizona gets the ball back and Chase Budinger is fouled. He sinks both free throws. Arizona now leads 67-66. On the next two Virginia possessions, Budinger takes a defensive charge and Dillon forces a traveling call on the perimeter.
The good news here is not that Arizona stopped Virginia on seven straight possessions. The good news is how they stopped them.
In recent seasons, Arizona's gone on many runs. Usually though it's a matter of them getting hot while their opponent goes cold in a helter-skelter three-minute span that was more about emotion than lock-down defensive effort. Last night, this Arizona run was defense-inspired and it took place over a four-minute stretch that was slow, methodical and downright nasty. Arizona forced, and let me reiterate forced, every Virginia turnover and they did it with good old-fashioned, move your feet, defense.
Unfortunately, that effort wasn't enough to get it done and pull out the victory.
For every "good" on defense, the Wildcats still made mistakes on that end of the floor that they'll have to improve upon as the season progresses. Their transition defense in the second half was poor as Virginia's stud-guard Sean Singletary was able to exploit the retreating Wildcats one too many times. Singletary, who was limited to 1-8 shooting in the first half, exploded in the final 20 minutes to finish with 24 points. I also didn't like Arizona's failure to extend their man defense on shooters who were hitting from the outside. Even though a majority of Virginia" three-pointers were shot from 21-feet and beyond, this is college and kids nowadays can knock down NBA-range three-pointers. This is something O'Neill will address in practice but last night was not a scrimmage.
On offense, Budinger scored 15 points but was not involved in the offense late. Bayless instead was the player taking the clutch shots and although he drained a three to cut the lead to 73-72 with under 30 seconds to go, on the previous possession he took an ill-advised jumper early in the shot clock that if made would have tied the score at 71-71.
I love the fact that Bayless was willing to take both shots, though. If he proves to be our go-to-guy in the clutch than so be it because he's certainly not afraid to be that guy as evidenced tonight. Although his missed shot was not great, he did attempt the shot aggressively and without hesitation. He also elevated very well and squared his shoulders to the rim, perfectly, so outside of his time and possession recognition, you can't really fault him for trying to make a game changing play. If he makes it he's a hero. If he misses it, then he gets people questioning him. I wasn't a fan of the shot but I'll never fault a "winner" in that situation and that's what Bayless is.
The loss did come with some painful reminders of recent underachieving seasons. One, where was Budinger at the end? Arizona's coaching staff needs to run a set play in those final minutes to get quality shots and either they didn't, or the players didn't execute whatever plays were called. Two, Arizona lacks ingenuity on their under-the-basket inbounds plays. I recognize that it's getting harder and harder to score off of inbounds passes in college but you need to have at least one magic play you can pull out of the hat when the game's on the line. I again didn't see that last night. Three, Arizona was susceptible to teams getting hot from behind the arc all of last season and Virginia seemed to pick right up from where everyone else left off. Recognize, adjust, extend and close out. It hasn't happened yet for Arizona. Four, turnovers. Although 17 turnovers is not a horrid number (they had plenty of games last year with more than 20), this was a possession game where every turnover is magnified so it felt more like 20+ than 17. Five, Arizona's slow start gave Virginia confidence and although the Wildcats played with heart, they weren't playing smart early which affected their execution. Six, whatever happened to Arizona's home court advantage? They've now lost five of their last seven home games. For a team that is now 314-37 at the McKale Center, those five losses represent a large percentage of total home losses.
I said in my Northern Arizona post game commentary that this was going to be a trying season for Wildcat fans as they watch this new and improved Arizona team grow up before their eyes. Last night's game was a perfect example. Although Arizona lost, they did show signs of greatness that were completely non-existent last season. Arizona looked better on defense overall than they did against NAU and the Cavaliers are clearly a better team than the Lumberjacks. Bayless and Wise are making some mistakes because of their newness to the college game but they are also showing that they are the immediate future of Arizona basketball and are more than capable of leading this team to great things THIS season. Hill, if forced to play center all season, can do it and do it well. Dillon, if he plays defense like he did last night, will give opposing teams' best offensive player fits night in and night out. McClellan remains the warrior he's always been and once the coaching staff finds a way to better utilize him in the offense without relying on him to make things happen for himself, he'll be dangerous. As for Budinger, I'm not worried at all. Early foul trouble haunted him all night and the fact that he picked up his third foul two minutes into the second half only added to his difficulties in playing aggressively. Stuff like this happens to scorers all the time and he just needs to forget about it while taking away one valuable lesson which is this: play your game and get to the foul line. When you've been on the bench for as long as he was, the first thing a scorer needs to do to get back in rhythm is get to the foul line and shoot two free throws when no one is defending you. Make ‘em both and just like that, you've found your stroke and you can resume shooting with confidence.
Arizona plays two winnable games this upcoming week (UMKC and Adams State) before heading to Lawrence to take on the Kansas Jayhawks. The Virginia loss will give them plenty to work on in the next eight days before the big game. The important thing is to not look ahead. The Kansas game will be won or lost by what they do in the two less advertised games. Continue to integrate the younger players into the lineup, continue to search for an eight-man rotation and hopefully find the player combinations that work most effectively.
Arizona is 1-1 and more than likely has not experienced their last loss of the season. This is a team that has a promising future, but it will not be a future without its setbacks.
Despite some haunting reminders of recent seasons, the positives of this team greatly outweigh the negatives.
A critical thing I'll take away from this game is Arizona looked like they were enjoying themselves all night. Budinger and Hill were smiling, McClellan looked poised and Bayless and Wise looked mightily focused.
The biggest thing for me, though, was after the game Arizona looked, for lack of a better word, pissed, and that above all else is what I've been waiting to see from a Wildcats team for more than three years.
Arizona's youthfulness cost them the game last night but that same youthfulness, once it gels, will sooner rather than later produce a much different result.