Arizona’s season is over because it didn’t fight to keep it going

Mar 17, 2023 - 4:00 AM
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

So that was bad.

Scratch that, it was terrible.

In a season where Arizona gave every reason to believe it was capable of losing to a 15 seed, the Wildcats did the unthinkable and actually lost to a 15 seed.

Perhaps it is surprising only in that the Wildcats losing this game wasn’t all that surprising, given their previous defeats.

Utah. Washington State. Oregon. Stanford. Arizona State. Princeton.

All so different, yet all so similar. Each was able to take advantage of an inconsistent Arizona team. The Wildcats were able to avenge each of their first six losses this season, but will have no opportunity to make up for the seventh.

The 59-55 defeat to the Tigers, a game in which Arizona stretched the lead out a couple of times but wasn’t able to put an inferior opponent away, ended the season.

At any rate, a weird season that surpassed many expectations but in the most important way fell well short of them has come to an end, and with plenty of questions now set to be asked we can finally acknowledge what we feared to be true but never wanted to believe:

This team, for all its talent, did not have the mentality to do great things.

Sure this year’s squad wasn’t wildly athletic, nor were they deep. There was not a surefire NBA player in the rotation, and they didn’t exactly come into the dance healthy.

But the reason they lost to Princeton, and to Utah, Washington State, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State before them, was because they lacked whatever it is that gets players and teams to play hard for 40 minutes, regardless of opponent. You know, that understanding of how any team can beat you if you don’t play hard.

One would hope effort would not have been an issue in the win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament, and yet after the game many an Arizona player pointed to exactly that as the problem.

“Lack of energy,” Pelle Larsson said. “We just never really got into the game I think. They dribbled and slowed it down on offense and we thought we would get away with it easy. Not doing things the right way.”

“From the very first second, I don’t want to say, but it felt like they wanted it more,” Kriisa told “It’s crazy.”

It is crazy — so much that head coach Tommy Lloyd wasn’t sure if that was the culprit.

“That’s interesting. I don’t know,” he said after the loss. “I know that wasn’t the message. I thought we had a good week of preparation, and I thought we were trying to build for a tournament run.

“Maybe some of these guys just were a little bit nervous. No one expected the game to be easier than it was, but it definitely wasn’t the message from the coaching staff.”

Fair, but then the coach added:

“I just know this: nothing great in life is achieved without energy and enthusiasm. I think that’s one of the things is players need to take a look in the mirror. That’s controllable by them, their effort and their energy, so we can do better there.”

Generally speaking, in this writer’s opinion, pointing to effort is a player’s way of shifting blame. It’s akin to saying yeah, we lost, but it’s because we did something wrong. That way, of course, it is something entirely within the player’s control.

But having watched this team all season and having seen it lose to the opponents it did, it is absolutely fair to wonder if, in fact, they just didn’t play hard enough often enough. And it cost them on the game’s biggest stage.

How disheartening. It’s one thing to lose to a better team and another to fall victim to an otherworldly effort by your opponent. It happens and while disappointing, it’s at least understandable.

But losing because the other team was playing harder? Because the other team wanted to win more than you did?

Come on. That’s not OK, at this level and especially when you have Arizona across your chest.

This is what the coaches and players will have to reconcile with over what is now a slightly longer offseason than anticipated.

“I think we had a great season,” Lloyd said. “We’re still trying to build and develop this program, and I’m still trying to develop as a coach.

“I think we were ranked in the top 10 for most of the year, I think these guys earned that. I thought we performed well on lots of big stages.”

That’s true, and yet their 28 wins, Maui and Pac-12 Tournament titles and record against ranked opponents mean little when you get bounced in the first round as a double-digit favorite.

Accomplishing all that a season after losing three starters to the NBA Draft while not bringing in any star, one-and-done players to replace them doesn’t feel too good when you have become the first school in NCAA history to lose twice to a 15-seed in round one.

Did Arizona overachieve this season? Yes, and doing so raised expectations to a level that it clearly wasn’t mentally strong enough to handle.

When the ball was tipped Thursday afternoon it didn’t matter what the Cats overcame to get to this point. They were in the tournament playing an Ivy League school that they should not only have beaten, but beaten comfortably. Even if it wasn’t a blowout, a victory would have been sufficient.

Had Arizona played hard, it would have won. Then again, had Arizona played hard it wouldn’t have lost most of the games it did.

Had Arizona played hard, it would still be playing.

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