Brandon Ashley vs USC

Brandon Ashley has been coming on stronger for the Wildcats.
Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in three weeks the Arizona Wildcats basketball team suffered a loss to a good team on Thursday before recovering to handily beat an inferior opponent on Saturday.

The loss to UCLA was especially unsettling because it happened in Tucson and the Bruins had a big lead faster than you could look up the correct number of Z’s in Shabazz. Arizona’s poor performance left fans wondering if the team was progressing as it should with more than half the season in the rearview mirror.

Are the Cats getting better? And what needs to change for the UA to get wins against the big boys again?

Here are the numbers in Arizona’s last dozen games including defensive field goal percentage, defensive 3-point percentage, offensive field goal and 3-point percentage, assists and turnovers:

VS D FG % D 3 % O FG % O 3 % AST TO
Florida 46.2 55.6 45.5 35.0 12 10
Oral Roberts 38.3 50.0 57.6 50.0 20 17
East Tenn St 31.0 26.1 42.4 34.6 15 18
Miami 36.5 26.3 48.1 44.4 11 16
San Diego St 43.6 23.5 37.3 25.0 10 8
Colorado 47.5 47.6 43.1 34.8 12 13
Utah 42.9 43.8 36.2 31.8 9 9
Oregon 48.1 63.6 43.9 42.1 11 14
Oregon St 39.3 33.3 47.5 40.0 14 16
Arizona St 39.1 25.0 46.3 31.3 12 9
UCLA 47.8 37.5 38.4 20.8 10 14
USC 28.1 25.0 41.0 31.8 14 11

Seeing the numbers side by side lets trends emerge. For example, the Cats were out-shot for four straight games from San Diego State through Oregon. Therefore it’s not a surprise the team was severely tested in all four contests (three escape acts and a loss).

The problem is there are some blowouts that skew the figures. If you take out the five bad teams and sort the seven games against decent opponents by field goal percentage allowed, the stats look like this:

VS D FG % D 3 % O FG % O 3 % AST TO
Oregon 48.1 63.6 43.9 42.1 11 14
UCLA 47.8 37.5 38.4 20.8 10 14
Colorado 47.5 47.6 43.1 34.8 12 13
Florida 46.2 55.6 45.5 35.0 12 10
San Diego St 43.6 23.5 37.3 25.0 10 8
Arizona St 39.1 25.0 46.3 31.3 12 9
Miami 36.5 26.3 48.1 44.4 11 16

Arizona’s two worst efforts (Oregon and UCLA) produced the two losses and each of the three games below that (Colorado, Florida, SDSU) went down to the wire. The two best performances resulted in the two easiest wins.

Defending against the 3-pointer hasn’t been the most telling stat as Florida shot an insane 56% from behind the arc and still lost while UCLA only needed three triples to win at McKale.

The offensive numbers are less telling. The Cats shot better in the Oregon loss than in the Colorado and San Diego State wins. The UA’s best 3-point shooting night among the seven games was also the loss to Oregon. The assist numbers have stayed constant and the Wildcats won big both with a bunch of turnovers (Miami) and barely any (ASU).

So defensive field goal percentage it is. Has there been any improvement? Here are the seven games against solid opponents in chronological order:

VS D FG %
Florida 46.2
Miami 36.5
San Diego St 43.6
Colorado 47.5
Oregon 48.1
Arizona St 39.1
UCLA 47.8

That trend line is pretty flat. The Cats have allowed 46% shooting or higher in four of the seven games including three of the last four so, if anything, it’s inching the wrong way.

There’s your stat to watch the rest of the season. Can Arizona improve its field goal defense against good teams?

The next test will be at Washington. The Huskies don’t exactly qualify as a “good team” this year but Thursdays haven’t been kind to the Wildcats so far in Pac-12 play. It’ll be a while before the UA sees UCLA and ASU again so the defensive growth will have to come against the midsection of the conference.

If you do want to see clear improvement take a look at Brandon Ashley’s last few games. The freshman was inconsistent early in the season, scoring 20 points in one game (Long Beach State) and two points the next (NAU). He scored six total points in the Florida, Miami, Colorado, Oregon and ASU games combined.

But over the last four games Ashley has averaged 8.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. He has been more aggressive, shooting 10 free throws against the L.A. schools and he’s passed Kaleb Tarczewski for the team lead in rebounds. Ashley’s numbers were down in the ASU game but he was praised for turning in his best defensive performance of the year.

Add it up and you have a young guy who is getting more comfortable in his role on this team and his ability to compete at this level. For those wanting to see more from Arizona’s freshmen post players, keep your eyes on number 21 in red and blue.

With all the on-court drama the last two months it’s easy to forget this is a 17-2 team. The Wildcats have a top-10 ranking and a top-five RPI. A Pac-12 championship may not be in the schedule but all the national goals are still in play.

A little defensive improvement could help this team go a long way.

– – – – –

Scott Terrell loves the HTML tables. Excel on Twitter and Facebook.