Arizona forward Ryan Luther gets smothered by Wazzu’s CJ Elleby, left, and Aljaz Kunc, right, during the Wildcats’ loss Saturday night. UA lost five straight for the first time since 1983-84.

We could start with Washington State star Robert Franks, but the bigger picture that developed at McKale Center this week went way beyond him.

In a week in which Arizona moved to fire a second assistant who worked under coach Sean Miller — and also downgraded guard Brandon Williams to indefinitely out with a knee injury — the Wildcats lost a second straight game at a home arena where they used to almost never lose.

Arizona’s 69-55 loss to WSU represented the first time they have lost five straight games overall since 1983-84, when Lute Olson spent his first season rebuilding the woeful Wildcats.

They lost pretty much all hope of reaching an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. They also may have lost hope of a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, meaning UA might have to win four games in Las Vegas next month to reach the NCAA Tournament at all.

The Wildcats lost their defense, which allowed three of the past five opponents to shoot better than 50 percent and had no way to stop Franks on Saturday. The 6-foot-9 marksman hit 7 of 9 3-pointers while totaling 31 points.

“We didn’t really have an answer for Franks,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “I think his numbers speak for themselves.”

Washington State Cougars Robert Franks wags his finger after notching a 3-pointer during the second half Saturday. Franks tied a career-high 34 points for the second game in a row after doing the same against ASU on Thursday.

Maybe more than anything, though, the Wildcats have lost their confidence. They lost it two weeks earlier in Los Angeles, but that was in front of USC and UCLA fans, in environments where the Wildcats have historically struggled.

This was different.

Arizona couldn’t hit a shot, couldn’t get a rally, couldn’t do much of anything, really, despite playing in front of their usual five-figure crowd and against one of the Pac-12’s worst teams.

The Wildcats shot 31.7 percent overall, with Brandon Randolph going 1 for 7, Chase Jeter going 0 for 4 and Justin Coleman needing 5 of 14 shooting to hit a team-high 14 points.

“We’re in a tough streak of games,” Luther said. “Everyone’s just trying to go to the gym every day with the right mentality. I don’t think this group is one that lets outside noise break us apart. We struggled but that’s basketball and we’ve got to get better.”

Arizona’s Alex Barcello tries to wrestle the ball away from Cougars foward Aljaz Kunc, but UA otherwise couldn’t find answers on defense.

Part of it is injuries, of course: Arizona went without Jeter because of a sore back in LA, and has been without Williams for the last three losses, at ASU, then against Washington and WSU at McKale Center.

Miller said the Wildcats miss Williams ability to shoot, create for others, get to the basket and spell Coleman as the team’s backup point guard. But Miller also said “that’s not the entire story.”

Both Jeter and Williams were healthy, after all, when the Wildcats shot only 36.5 percent in a home-court loss to Oregon on Jan. 17, and when they shot 35.8 percent against Baylor on Dec. 15.

“Part of it is we have to get our guys as confident as we can get them,” Miller said. “You miss shots for a game, it can bother you. You can miss shots for a couple of games, and it can really bother you. We have a number of players in that boat and that can lead to breakdowns in other areas.

“The same thing defensively. We’re not the biggest, most physical, strongest team. We gotta almost be perfect with our effort and positioning and tonight, when we weren’t, Washington State took advantage of us.”

Trouble was immediately evident.

Arizona’s Devonaire Doutrive reacts during the second half of the Wildcats’ game against Washington State, Feb. 9, 2019, at McKale Center.

The Wildcats missed their first seven shots of the game, and Washington State took a quick 7-0 lead. It wasn’t until Luther hit his first of three 3-pointers nearly six minutes into the game that the Wildcats scored.

Then, before long, Franks started appearing: He had two early 3s to give WSU a 13-7 lead and collected 20 points by halftime, after having scored 34 in the Cougars’ 21-point win at WSU on Thursday.

“Robert Franks is a great player. Great shooter,” Luther said. “We just didn’t do the job on him.”

They couldn’t do the job on him, Miller said, whether trying smaller or bigger defenders against him.

No matter what.

“He’s certainly one of the best offensive players who plays college basketball,” Miller said.

WSU freshman CJ Elleby added 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists for WSU, and Miller said the two Cougars were a “1-2 punch” that particularly hurt.

Franks surfaced again throughout the second half to keep the Wildcats down. Trailing 12 points at halftime, Arizona stayed behind by double digits most of the second half.

Although Devonaire Doutrive made a layup with 2:13 to go to cut WSU’s lead to 63-53, Franks hit his final 3 with 1:11 left to give the Cougars a 69-53 lead.

The loss dropped the Wildcats to 14-10 overall and 5-6 in the Pac-12, while Washington State improved to 10-14 and 3-8, with its first win at McKale Center since Klay Thompson was a Cougars sophomore in 2009-10.

Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller and the coaching staff watch in disbelief during the first half of the team’s fifth straight loss, Feb. 9, 2019, at McKale Center.

For what it’s worth, the Wildcats’ loss margin of 16 points was also its biggest at McKale Center since BYU beat the Wildcats 99-69 during Miller’s first season, and its biggest in a conference game at home since UCLA beat them 81-66 during Olson’s final season of 2006-07.

For Miller, there was also some personal history. Never before has he lost five straight games as a head coach, either during his 10 years at Arizona or the five before that at Xavier.

Never.

“I’ve been very fortunate we’ve had great teams in two great places,” Miller said. “This is certainly new but that happens and these are the circumstances. There’s brand new challenges.”

Challenges, like: Getting a 2018 recruiting class all but wiped out by the federal investigation, losing all five starters and now having injuries and more off-court drama torpedo the locker room.

Things are so odd around the program these days that UA athletic director Dave Heeke even held a news conference at halftime Saturday to offer support for Miller, saying he was disappointed to see national media driving a “narrative that, quite frankly, doesn’t exist.”

Twenty more minutes of basketball and 11 more Robert Franks points after Heeke spoke, Luther and Doutrive quietly sat down at the postgame interview podium.

“We know what we got,” Doutrive said. “We’ve just got to keep fighting through it.”

How, exactly?

The Wildcats will go to Utah and Colorado next, and, well, that losing streak could be seven games by the time they return.

Luther was asked if the losses have already taken a toll.

“Anytime you lose, it takes a toll,” Luther said. “We work hard every day to try to get better in practice. Unfortunately, we haven’t put it all together this last stretch of games. But of course it takes a toll on us. Everyone just wants to win.”

Reporter

Bruce is a veteran Star sports reporter who has also worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He graduated from Northwestern University and has an MBA from Thunderbird.