LAS VEGAS - Against Duke, Michigan and San Diego State, the UA shot .810 percent from the foul line. Look it up. Pinch yourself. It’s true.
Eight swishes for every two misses.
To win at Michigan, the Wildcats made 14 of 15 foul shots. To win at San Diego State, it was 16 for 22. Against Duke, it was 21 for 26.
You do not win any of those games if you shoot .375 from the foul line, as Arizona did Saturday against UCLA.
Here’s the recap, in order, from the MGM Grand Garden Arena:
College basketball is not a complicated game. If one team shoots 21 for 25 from the foul line, as UCLA did Saturday, and the other 6 for 16, as Arizona did, you won’t win unless you’ve got Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dunking all the rest of your shots.
UCLA won 75-71, and although UA coach Sean Miller forced a few smiles and delivered the requisite we’ll-get-’em-next-time hosannas in the media room, free-throw shooting has been the kryptonite following his team at close range all season.
Arizona lost at ASU because it shot 16 for 30 from the foul line on Valentine’s Day.
It lost to Oregon because it shot 11 for 19 last week.
It lost to the Bruins not only because it couldn’t make a free throw when it absolutely, positively had to make one, but also because it did not score on eight consecutive possessions in the game’s final five minutes.
What made it worse was that UCLA did everything it could to lose Saturday. It went five possessions without scoring, from 3:59 remaining until Jordan Adams stuck a three-pointer with 45 seconds to play.
At the worst possible time of the year, the Wildcats played like Washington State.
“I don’t want to keep coming back to it, because we aren’t a good free-throw shooting team,” said Miller, “but as we climb the ladder (this month) and the teams we play are better and have a lot at stake, it’s tough to win when you go 6 for 16 from the foul line.
“If we had shot better from the foul line we’d have been in the winner’s circle, there’s not a doubt in my mind about it.”
College basketball is renewable, day to day and week to week, and losing Saturday to the Bruins doesn’t mean that much in the short term, long term or any term. Seven days earlier, the Bruins were embarrassed at Wazzu 73-55. Adams bricked all three of his three-point attempts that day.
On Saturday he was Superman.
Do you know what UCLA did about its el foldo at Wazzu? Nothing. Coach Steve Alford essentially burned the game films, didn’t make his team watch it, didn’t make them run laps, didn’t do anything. He told them to forget it and move on.
That’s what Miller should do about Saturday’s game in Las Vegas.
“You won 30 games, boys,” he should say. “You played three games in three days, and you’ve only slept in your own beds four nights the last two weeks. Go home. Sack out. Forget about the Bruins. We get to start over tomorrow.”
The bigger question created by Saturday’s game was: How did the Bruins lose eight games this season?
They’ve got size, length, shooters, depth, nice uni’s and a 6-foot-9-inch point guard, Kyle Anderson, who played on Saturday the way Magic Johnson played point guard at Michigan State 35 years ago.
Are you telling me the Bruins lost to Oregon State and Utah? What, was Anderson kidnapped?
Alford took a look at the final stats and said, “I mean, seriously, 21 points, 15 rebounds and five assists from your point guard? He’s very unique. A 6-9 point guard that facilitates the way he can. He’s a nightmare to match up with.”
Arizona didn’t get its second-chance, put-back points against UCLA the way it did against Utah and Colorado earlier in the week. That’s because Anderson grabbed 15 defensive rebounds. It was as if he was some sort of suction machine.
Without its second-chance points, Arizona was forced to live or die at the foul line.
“I’ve got good news for whoever draws UCLA in the NCAA tournament,” Miller said wryly. “Good luck.”
Miller can’t do any more than he’s already done about improving his team’s free-throw percentage. He often has Aaron Gordon and his teammates shoot as many as 200 foul shots a day.
Maybe it’s like golf. Some days you can drain 5-foot putts forever. Some days they seem like 50-footers. In Arizona’s first loss, at Cal, the Wildcats remarkably set a school record by making all 16 free throws they attempted. Everything was a tap-in.
On Saturday, the Wildcats tapped out.
There’s not much mystery to the fickle nature of March basketball. As soon as Miller and Nick Johnson left the podium in the MGM Grand’s interview room, a moderator grabbed their nameplates and put them in a box.
The names of Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams were fished from the same box and put in place. Almost as if on cue, Anderson walked in the room, up the stairs to the podium, and modeled the net UCLA had just cut down, wearing it around his neck.
That’s how fleeting it can be.
Arizona went home with nothing more than a handshake and the pledge to get it right next time.
It’s the next one that really counts.