You want to dump it on Sean Miller? Go ahead. He’s the most convenient target.
He put together a team without a point guard at Point Guard U. He’s the guy who called a timeout 57 seconds into Thursday’s game as if to tell his befuddled team, basically, “Didn’t you hear a word I told you in the scouting report?”
“They’re good. They lead the nation in defense. Didn’t you believe me?”
But John Wooden couldn’t have drawn up a game plan that would have worked against Wichita State on Thursday night. It was the best team Arizona played all season, and it took 57 seconds to figure that out.
Or maybe you can transmit your ill feelings to the NCAA selection committee. That’s the group that seeded Wichita State No. 11, as if the metrics, analytics and RPI mumbo jumbo didn’t apply to the Shockers, as if the committee ran out of time before they had time to assess the Shockers’ so-called “body of work.”
Wichita State won 65-55, and the last 30 minutes were turn-off-the-TV, I’m-waiting-’til-next-year time in Tucson.
Arizona finished the season 25-9. It’s exactly the same record as when the Wildcats won the national championship in 1997.
But the way the Shockers took Arizona apart Thursday, it felt more like 9-25.
“As much as I like to be better on defense, we were a much better offensive team than a defensive team this year,” Miller said. “But tonight we couldn’t score. They held an 81-point-per-game team to 55, and we really struggled to get to 55.”
Arizona point guard Kadeem Allen committed seven turnovers. The entire Wichita State team had six. The Wildcats appeared to be in, well, shock. The Shockers play defense unlike any Pac-12 team.
They don’t try to outscore you. They make sure you don’t outscore them.
Wichita State doesn’t look impressive getting on and off the bus. It plays in a league with Drake and Northern Iowa and a bunch of other teams that don’t register on the college basketball map. But, holy smokes, it makes you pay for every dribble.
“They slapped at the ball a lot,” UA guard Gabe York said between sniffles, dabbing at the tears in his eyes. “They just make it hard for you. They’re in the passing lanes and doing what they need to do defensively. They’re jumping the passing lanes and making the guards pick their dribbles up.”
When Miller and his coaching staff began working the X’s and O’s early in the week, they studied the numbers supplied by websites such as Kenpom.com. Miller puts a lot of faith in those metrics; Kenpom.com ranked Wichita State as the nation’s No. 1 defensive team.
“We don’t normally get the five-star — or even four-star — recruits,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. “But, the stars really don’t matter to us. We try to get guys who want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They’re everyday guys.”
Senior guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker seem to have been playing at Wichita State since Lute Olson retired. They entered Thursday’s game having combined for 231 points in NCAA tournament games and surviving win-or-go-home victories over Kansas, Gonzaga, Pitt, Indiana and now Arizona.
No Kansas hayseeds here.
The Wildcats were skittish from the tipoff. No option worked, inside or outside. Marshall on Baker: “He put on a defensive clinic.”
But as good as Baker was, VanVleet was better. He was the top player on the floor.
“He’s in total control of the game,” said Miller. “He’s better on defense than he is on offense. They have a two-guard, Baker, that’s kind of the same. It’s not a good feeling playing against Wichita State.”
A year ago, Utah guard Delon Wright was selected a consensus All-American. VanVleet is better. Does anyone outside of Kansas truly know that?
The Shockers haven’t hurt for motivation. After being forced to play in a Tuesday’s show-us-you’re-worthy game against Vanderbilt, they arrived in Providence at 4:30 a.m. with the clock ticking on their prep for Arizona.
But as it turned out, Arizona was the team that had the most difficult preparation.
“You feel it when you’re out there,” said Miller. “The pressure is everywhere.”
There is a common theme to most of Arizona’s exits from the NCAA Tournament. It’s no different now that it was in 1985. It comes down to shooting percentages. The Wildcats shot 41 percent against Wichita State, but when the game was determined, in the first half, Arizona shot 27 percent.
If you scan the list of painful Arizona exits, you’ll see that the Wildcats shot 28 percent in their 1998 Elite Eight loss to Utah, and 31 percent in their epic first-round collapse to Santa Clara in 1993, and 39 percent against Wisconsin in that still-painful 2014 Elite Eight game.
It goes all the way back to Lute Olson’s first Arizona NCAA team, 1985. That club lost 50-41 to Alabama, shooting 29 percent. Different generation. Same formula.
Miller left Dunkin’ Donuts Center saying, “If you lose in the first round, it’s bittersweet.” More revealing, he said: “They were better than us. … As much as I would’ve liked to say, hey we should’ve won 30, we might’ve ended up just where we should’ve been.”
It was Marshall who said the simple words that coaches like Miller covet most in the NCAA Tournament.
“See you on Saturday,” he said.