The baseball poets call it the June swoon, but in college basketball there are no easy rhymes. Dead in Feb.? In bed in Feb.? The Feb. dread?
Whatever the disorder, Arizona can’t shake it.
The Pac-12’s undisputed first-place club probably played its worst second half of the season Saturday night, yet it beat Cal 62-57. But no longer can you run your finger down the remaining schedule and come up with a string of W’s.
“We need a break right now,” coach Sean Miller said. “We need some time off.”
Doubt has crept in.
Lauri Markkanen’s slump not only continued, shooting 1-for-5 Saturday, but Allonzo Trier shot 0-for-5 from the field. How do you win any game when those two combine to miss all but one shot they attempt?
Here’s how: Cal wasn’t good enough to win it.
The Bears’ franchise player, power forward Ivan Rabb, who leads the Pac-12 in rebounds, had four. He scored a season-low four points.
The bottom half of the Pac-12 is so bad that Arizona might continue to get away with its flat second-half performances next week at Washington and WSU. But it won’t be long until this Feb. dread leads to more than just another inartistic performance.
The UA leads the Pac-12 in winning percentage, but after an uneven homestand against Stanford and Cal, the Wildcats are also No. 1 in inconsistency.
At halftime Saturday, even without Markkanen and Trier scoring, Arizona had been terrific. The Wildcats averaged 1.26 points per possession. That’s whacked out. That total would lead the nation in offensive efficiency.
That’s how effective the Wildcats were against Cal’s zone. It led 34-25, it had committed just one turnover and had earned every point of its lead.
But in the second half, Arizona was puzzlingly ineffective.
It had an average of just 0.87 per possession, which is its lowest of the season. It shot 1-for-9 from 3-point range. It committed nine turnovers.
And yet Cal still couldn’t win, or even take the lead.
Miller lived through a cantankerous week. He blew a switch on Thursday, declaring that his team’s lack of defense should send a message to every NBA wannabe in uniform that the NBA isn’t interested.
On Saturday, Miller again boiled over. When Dusan Ristic was late on a defensive assignment in the second half, Miller gave him the thumb the way a baseball umpire would to a disagreeable manager.
That’s Miller’s way. He did the to Trier same two days earlier against Stanford. It’s that sort of demand for toughness that has driven Arizona through Miller’s 7½ seasons. If Arizona is to recover from this midseason scourge, it will probably be when the club plays 40 minutes of attentive defense.
Miller’s not going to change.
The new book by Dave Burhenn — “Miller Time” — discusses in depth how Miller was raised by his father, Pennsylvania coaching legend John Miller, who was Sean’s father/mentor/coach.
“My dad was tough, real tough, on all of us, maybe most of all on me,” Sean Miller told Burhenn. “He wouldn’t have done me any favors by taking it easy on me.”
And Miller wouldn’t be doing his slumping team any good by slapping them on the back and telling them to play harder next time.
As troubling as a periodic lack of defensive toughness is Markkanen’s shooting disorder. He is now 14-for-41 since Arizona’s rousing victory at UCLA. That’s barely 35 percent.
Somehow Arizona is 5-1 in that stretch.
The Wildcats have found other ways to win. On Saturday it was a steal by Kadeem Allen with 2:35 remaining as Arizona held a tense 53-49 lead. Allen fed the stolen ball to Rawle Alkins, who sprinted for a power dunk and the Bears were done.
Alkins seems to be the one guy who can make Miller smile. Earlier, after throwing a crisp pass that led to a dunk by Chance Comanche, Alkins ran past the UA bench and slapped hands with Miller. Have you ever seen that in mid-game?
Maybe we should have seen this ode to a mid-season funk coming. Arizona’s three freshman, Markkanen, Alkins and Kobi Simmons, have combined 985 points. That’s extremely unusual.
Since Arizona joined the Pac-10 in 1978, only the 2000 team of freshmen Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner and Luke Walton scored a higher percentage (38 percent) of the team’s points.
Somewhere along the line there’s inevitably going to be a hit-the-wall period, and to Arizona’s good fortune, hitting the wall has cost them only a game at Oregon, a game that almost no other team in the country could’ve won anyway.
Cal is a capable mid-level Pac-12 team, perhaps even an NCAA bubble team, and the Bears haven’t gotten enough credit for opening the league season 9-4.
Cal coach Cuonzo Martin, who might be the leader as Pac-12 coach of the year, likely has the best bench staff in the league, with ex-Duke and Syracuse assistant coach Tim O’Toole and former Illinois assistant Tracy Webster, who was on the Illini bench in 2005 when Arizona suffered possibly the most agonizing loss in school history, an Elite Eight meltdown in Chicago.
But this time, expert coaching was only good enough to make Arizona sweat until the final buzzer.
The Wildcats have another week to get their affairs in order before they play host to USC and UCLA on Feb. 23-25. So far, playing with fire has only thrown a scare into those who sit in the seats at McKale.