Monday, February 11, 2013
In This Boom-or-Bust Season, Arizona Fits Right In
The developing narrative of this year's college basketball season is that there are no great teams. Anybody can be beat by almost anybody (see: TCU over Kansas), and that's going to put an extra dose of madness into your March bracket projections.
The lack of greatness is particularly apparent in the Pac-12, where somehow a very flawed Arizona team is tied at the top of the league standings with an Oregon team that somehow can't manage the absence of its freshman point guard and a UCLA team that has two wins over top-10 teams (Arizona and Missouri), but also lost to Cal Poly.
(Ben Howland's coaching peculiarities went so far as to make Bruins legend and hipster dufus Bill Walton call for his ouster. Say what you will about Walton's "I may or may not be extremely drunk and/or having an acid flashback right now" commentary style, his points about Howland's substitution patterns and use of timeouts is not without merit.)
Arizona is a particularly frustrating case to watch. If you just look at the resume, they're a solid top-three seed come March. They are 20-3, ranked in the top 10 and have wins over Florida, Miami, and San Diego State. Add to that they are one of the few teams with experience on the floor and the Wildcats should be above the kind of performances they've put out the past few weeks.
Arizona's issues can be traced to the man who most often finds himself the center of the action, senior Mark Lyons. On the season, Lyons has 70 assists to 66 turnovers. He leads the team in field goal attempts, but he shoots the lowest percentage of any starter (43%). The transfer from Xavier is money in the final five minutes, but oftentimes it's his carelessness throughout the first 35 minutes that requires the clutch performance. He's like a firefighter who sets the blaze on purpose, then comes to the rescue to play the hero.
In Arizona's home loss to California on Saturday night, their second home conference loss of the season, Lyons made just five of his 14 attempts, and the pattern he's set emerged again. Incredibly ineffective for most of the game, Lyons was out front as Arizona tried to once again recover from a late deficit. He drove the lane and got fouled. He set up Brandon Ashley for a layup. He made a three.
But just like the glory-hounding pyro of two paragraphs ago, it's a losing strategy in the long run. Sometimes that guy gets burned, and burned badly. In this game, Cal's Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs didn't wilt under the pressure of the McKale Center crowd. In this game, Lyons missed the three pointer that would have cut the lead down to two with 38 seconds left, and the Bears went back to California with a crucial conference road victory.
The good news for the Wildcats is that no other team seems to have figured out how to play consistently either. Of everybody playing hot right now, Indiana and Miami are the two teams I would most trust in a Final Four game. And Indiana just lost to Illinois, and Miami has losses to Indiana State and Florida Gulf Coast on its resume.
Can Arizona play with those guys? Of course. They already beat the Hurricanes by 19 (although the U was without Reggie Johnson). But Sean Miller's team needs to stop spotting opponents 10-to-15 point leads and assuming they can come back. They need to start playing some perimeter defense (only Southern Cal has given up a higher percentage of opponent three pointers than Arizona).
Most importantly, though, Arizona needs Lyons to play much more consistently, even if that does limit his opportunities to play the hero at the end. In the Wildcats' 73-66 win over Stanford last Wednesday, Lyons played arguably his best game of the year. Twenty-five points. Six assists. Nine-of-13 from the field with just 2 turnovers. Miller said he thought Lyons was turning the corner. It looked like he finally figured out how to lead rather than just dominate.
Then Sunday came about, and it was the same old Lyons.
Arizona's future over the next eight weeks will be entirely determined by which Lyons shows up in March. If it's guy who played against Stanford, Arizona is a legitimate Final Four contender. But if it's the guy who played against California, Arizona could just as easily join the ranks of Lehigh/Duke or Norfolk State/Missouri.