LOS ANGELES –
Let’s say you have 70 possessions in a college basketball game, like the one Thursday night at USC’s Galen Center.
You miss 35 shots. You commit 10 turnovers.
That means you’ve got to make your bread in about 25 possessions. The margin for error is sometimes something as simple as someone banking in a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock with 33 seconds remaining.
Someone like Lauri Markkanen.
“It was a backbreaker,” said USC coach Andy Enfeld.
Trojan guard Jordan McLaughlin had another description.
“It was a heartbreaker.”
It was both. Arizona beat the Trojans 73-66 because Markkanen had “jaata suonissa”.
That’s Finnish for “ice in veins.”
It was “kytkin.”
That’s Finnish for “clutch.”
In the analytics that so dominate all sports, especially college basketball, the kenpom.com metrics list a factor called “luck.” Nothing complicated about that.
Kenpom.com ranked USC No. 5 of 351 college basketball teams in the luck factor entering Thursday’s game. I’m not sure how kenpom.com computes the luck category, but it probably has something to do with the Trojans beating Texas A&M, SMU, BYU, Troy, Oregon State and Wyoming by single digits.
On Thursday, USC’s luck changed.
Markkanen banked in a 22-footer as the shot clock ran dangerously close to 0:0 with Arizona fading into the sunset, barely clinging to a 67-64 lead.
Arizona entered the game ranked as the No. 152nd luckiest team in college basketball and it only climbed to No. 136 after beating the Trojans. Maybe that’s because the Wildcats have had to squirm to close out sloppy victories over Cal, Utah, Colorado and now USC since the Pac-12 season began.
It’s not luck. It’s more like survival.
Surely Arizona would be No. 1 in kenpom.com’s survival metric, if he ever invents one.
The reactions from each team’s locker rooms was fully different Thursday.
Enfeld was so befuddled he argued that Markkanen’s winning 3-pointer came about a minute earlier, or with about 1:40 on the clock.
“That was a huge shot,” he said. “We played great defense and we had all the momentum. I thought we could win the game.”
Instead it was a piece of “onni.” That’s Finnish for “luck.”
“He’d been making shots all night,” said McLaughlin. “It was a tough shot. Credit to him.”
Miller kept the Wildcats in their locker room for such an extended period that by the time he began his radio show, Enfeld and the Trojans had exited their postgame media obligations and hit the nearby freeway.
Miller has a good poker face, but this time you could tell he was steamed by another narrow escape.
He spoke about the “final 14 minutes” the way a coach would talk about being told his leading scorer will miss the season’s first 19 games.
“You have to address it if you’re the coach,” he said. “I’m going to start to sit guys.”
That was Miller’s way of saying his team’s puzzling inability to finish an all-but-defeated opponent is not going to be tolerated.
There are no dog days in college basketball. The games count too much in January when a lot of teams run low on fuel, but unlike an extended baseball season, any basketball game in the Pac-12, especially one in Los Angeles, is currency that leads toward more favorable seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
It was, however, a dog days performance by Arizona. You so rarely get away with one of those, on the road, that you’d almost think Miller would smile all the way to the hotel, order the bus to stop at In-N-Out Burger and treat the whole team.
Not this time.
“In USC’s run at the end of the game, we essentially gave them 42 points in 16 minutes,” he said. “That speaks to the effort of USC.”
And to Arizona’s relative indifference.
The Trojans aren’t likely to go far in March. They lost way too much from last year’s NCAA team, one that beat Arizona in four overtimes at the Galen Center. Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic jumped early to the pros (neither was drafted) and Katin Reinhardt transferred to Marquette. Worse, 6-foot 10-inch “stretch 4” Benny Boatwright has a knee injury and hasn’t played since November.
Enfeld suggested Boatwright’s absence was a game-changer. “He matches up well with Markkanen,” he said. “They’re the same player.”
Well, not really.
Boatwright is not listed in any 2017 NBA Draft projections, not in the first round, but he did average 11.5 points as a freshman and is tall enough that he might’ve put a hand in Markkanen’s face on the game-deciding 3-pointer.
Talk about your luck (or bad luck) factor.
Ultimately, Arizona was able to kill the clock even though it stopped playing aggressively and created suspense where a better, deeper team – one with Allonzo Trier — might’ve lived comfortably with a 56-35 lead and 9:55 remaining.
Instead, the Wildcats were much like a football team that goes into a prevent defense and finds itself yielding long passes and momentum-changing touchdowns just when you thought all was safe.
That might work against USC and Colorado, but when the Wildcats play at 18-1 UCLA Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, the “luck” equation probably won’t matter much.
You can beat the Trojans with a late bank shot, but to beat the Bruins you’ve got to deliver a blow for 40 minutes.