Perhaps Arizona guard Rawle Alkins described the UCLA offense best.
“When they’re hitting their shots, they look like a million dollars,” Alkins said. “When they’re not, they look crazy.”
UCLA, which boasts the nation’s highest-scoring offense, shot 40.7 percent and connected on just four of its 25 3-point attempts in an 86-75 loss to No. 7 Arizona (29-4, 16-2 Pac-12) Friday night that knocked the Bruins out of the Pac-12 tournament.
With March Madness right around the corner, the No. 3 Bruins (29-4, 15-3) have sunk into a slump at the worst time possible, producing their two lowest field-goal percentage games of the season on back-to-back nights against USC and Arizona.
“We didn’t play very well this whole tournament,” said coach Steve Alford. “These were the worst back-to-back games we’ve had shooting the basketball.”
After Friday’s loss, the Bruins maintained they took the same quality shots they’ve taken all year. They just didn’t go down.
“That’s how we play: We shoot the ball – it hurts us or it helps us,” said sophomore guard Aaron Holiday. “We live by the 3. We got good shots, and they just didn’t fall tonight.”
After holding the top spot in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency for most of the year, UCLA has fallen to third in the nation, behind Oklahoma State and Villanova. The Bruins still rank first in Division I in Synergy Sports’ points-per-possession statistic.
“I don’t think our confidence is going to be too shaken,” said senior guard Bryce Alford. “I mean, we’re 29-4, we have a lot of guys who have shot the ball well all year.”
Bryce Alford, who leads the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting percentage, made just one of his 10 long-range looks against Arizona after going 2-for-7 against USC. Freshman point guard Lonzo Ball struggled from distance as well in the conference tournament, hitting just three of his 13 attempts.
The Bruins’ defense has improved recently but, as has been clear all season, it will be their offense that ultimately drives whatever NCAA Tournament success they achieve.
With a vast array of capable 3-point bombers, UCLA is well-prepared to overcome any one individual’s cold shooting night. Rarely have all of the Bruins’ shooters struggled in the same game.
On Friday night, it happened, and it was ugly.
On the other end of the floor, the Bruins were burned repeatedly by 7-foot Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen, a likely lottery pick who shoots 43.2 percent on 3-pointers.
Markkanen took a career-high 22 shots en route to 29 points, looking far more aggressive than he did in the teams’ previous meeting. He routinely found open looks when the Wildcats involved him in pick-and-pop situations.
“In situations like that, you have to first help to stop the guy coming off the pick-and-roll from getting to the basket himself,” said junior center Thomas Welsh. “So that’s just where we bigs have to work together and get out there and close hard. But he’s a tough guy to contest.”
Even when the Bruins defended the action decently, Markkanen’s 7-foot frame allowed him to get off relatively unbothered shots.
“If you don’t have everything just right, then he can definitely make you pay for it,” said freshman forward T.J. Leaf. “We had a couple miscommunications switching pick-and-rolls, but he’s a heck of a player. He’s 7 feet with a quick release, and one of the best shooters out west, if not in the country.”
1. Both Ball and Bryce Alford posted season-low offensive ratings against Arizona, per KenPom.com. Bryce Alford’s was 42, which means the Bruins averaged 0.42 points per possession during his 33 minutes on the floor. For context, no Division I team averages fewer than 0.73 points per possession.
2. Welsh continued to play well against top-notch competition, drilling all five of his shots Friday night en route to 13 points with eight rebounds. In nine games this year against what KenPom.com deems “Tier A” opponents, Welsh has shot 69.1 percent and grabbed more than three offensive rebounds a game.
3. Steve Alford repeatedly mentioned the importance of health in his postgame meeting with the media. Leaf, playing in his second game since returning from a sprained ankle, struggled in his matchup with Markkanen, while Ball injured his thumb in the first half and could be seen monitoring it throughout the game. The Bruins will not play again until, at the earliest, Thursday in the NCAA Tournament.