No. 2 Arizona has nowhere to go but up (and down) after its Caribbean catastrophe
A looming FBI investigation coupled with this losing streak could cast a long shadow on their season
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Call it what you want: The Bahamian Bloodbath. The Caribbean CAT-astrophe. Braising Arizona.
What second-ranked Arizona just did over the past 72 hours has to rank among the most devastating non-conference tournament showings in the history of non-conference tournaments.
A North Carolina State team nobody picked to be an NCAA tournament team before this season. A to an SMU team that will surprise people in the American Conference but is far less talented than Arizona.to a
And then, just before midnight on Friday, an embarrassing Purdue.to
And now Arizona -- a team many thought to be a title contender going into the season, and that garnered 11 of the 65 first-place votes in the most recent AP poll -- is on the cusp of doing something that's never happened before: Fall from being the second-ranked team in the nation to out of the AP top 25 poll altogether.
I can't imagine a scenario where Arizona doesn't set that dubious record. (Louisville went from No. 2 to unranked in the Dec. 2, 1986 poll, but that was when it was only a top 20 poll, according to the NCAA record book. In the era of the top 25 poll, the biggest fall from ranked to unranked in a single week was Kentucky in 2012, which fell from No. 8 one week to unranked in the Dec. 3, 2012 poll.)
Sean Miller's Arizona teams have been ranked in the AP Poll for 100 weeks in a row, dating back to when the team fell out of the rankings for a couple months during the 2011-12 season, Miller's third in Tucson. But that 2011-12 team falling out of the top 25 was not particularly surprising; they were ranked only 16th in the preseason, possessed talent that pales in comparison to Miller's more recent Arizona teams, and finished the season with 14 losses.
But this team?
Sure, Rawle Alkins, a sophomore wing who fills a key role on this team as an elite all-around player, is out with a foot injury until Pac-12 play. His absence cannot be overstated. "If Rawle was on our team for this tournament, I don't think I would be talking to you right now (at the press conference for the last-place team)," Miller said. "But I don't want to make him like when he comes back it's all fixed."
Certainly not. But even with Alkins out, this team is still really talented. Freshman big man DeAndre Ayton is a transcendent player who might be the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. Allonzo Trier is a national player of the year-caliber junior who was averaging nearly 30 points per game coming into Friday's game. Freshmen Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot both have NBA potential.
The fact that a team this talented came down here and left without a win is the single biggest shock of this young college basketball season.
"I wouldn't have predicted we would come down here and finish 0-3," Miller said after the last-place finish. "That wasn't the goal. But nothing is ever as bad as it seems. And certainly we probably weren't nearly as good as everybody thought we were before we traveled down here."
It happened all sorts of different ways. In Arizona's loss to N.C. State, their lack of defensive intensity had Miller on the verge of blowing a gasket. In Arizona's loss to SMU, the defensive intensity was there, but Arizona got killed on the glass, and SMU's small lineup carved up Arizona on the perimeter.
In Arizona's loss to Purdue, it was pretty much everything: giving up open 3 after open 3 to a Purdue team that was an unconscious 11 for 22 from beyond the arc. Having the game's biggest paint presence be not Ayton but instead Purdue's fiery freshman Matt Haarms, who blocked five shots. Purdue big man Isaac Haas getting too-easy buckets in the paint over Arizona's Dusan Ristic. Getting outrebounded by 10, and getting outhustled all over the floor.
There wasn't only one explanation for the Bahamian Bloodbath. There were many. It was mind-boggling to see a Miller-coached team struggle so mightily on the defensive end, where during the past several years Arizona has often been among the best in the country.
Of course, there was one easy explanation to it all, and if Arizona continues to struggle, this explanation will be a continuing refrain around this team, whether it's true: That the FBI investigation that has enveloped this program has gotten into the players' heads.
I did ask Miller just that after the game. To every other question about his team's struggles, Miller was thoughtful and expansive. To this question, he was not.
"Our focus is just on this season right now," he replied.
I don't blame him for not addressing it; I wouldn't either. The last time Arizona lost three games in a row was in February 2010, Miller's first season. But an FBI investigation that has already caused Arizona assistant Book Richardson's arrest and termination is infinitely more concerning than any three-game losing streak. Any emotions related to that are best kept close to a team's vest.
I tend to think Arizona will bounce back from this losing streak just fine -- that it's too early, and that this is merely a November aberration. There's simply too much talent, and Miller is too good of a coach, for this Caribbean catastrophe to be a harbinger of a disastrous season in Tucson. Alkins will come back, and shots will start falling (Arizona was an ugly 3 for 17 from deep against Purdue), and the youngsters will learn to defend, and Arizona will be right back in it sooner instead of later.
If they don't, though, the shadow that was going to hang over Arizona's season no matter what -- from the moment the FBI investigation broke -- will grow darker, and darker, and darker. If this losing streak is a harbinger of a disappointing season, the questions will keep coming: What's wrong with Arizona?
And once all the basketball explanations are exhausted, the answers will start to point to something else.
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