Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller was going to live and die with Mark Lyons at point guard this season.
Miller has done a bit of both.
Lyons isn’t really a point guard, but he’s playing one for the Wildcats, so he has to be judged by point guard standards.
In two losses against UCLA, including Saturday night’s 74-69 loss in Pauley Pavilion, this is Lyons’ line: 11 of 32 shooting (3 of 12 from 3-point range), 29 points, 10 turnovers and one little assist.
UCLA point guard Larry Drew II, meanwhile, had 18 assists and six turnovers against Arizona, also scoring 21 points.
“Larry Drew was too much for us,” Miller said on his postgame radio show on 1290-AM.
“When he scores, it adds a different dimension to their team. He had his usual nine assists. His four turnovers are high, but I thought he was in control of the game from start to finish. They feed off of him.”
When the Cats got the ball back with 24.7 seconds left down three points, Lyons walked up the ball up court without much urgency, dribbled up top looking for an opening before eventually spinning into the lane and put up a contested jumper that missed. UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws for the final margin.
Arizona needed a quick two-point shot, followed by a foul of UCLA. Or it needed to try a tying 3-pointer.
It got neither.
The Wildcats are better off because Lyons transferred from Xavier as a one-and-done graduate student, providing a bridge to Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, who becomes eligible next season as a junior. Really, what are Arizona’s other options?
But Lyons is no floor general — and that becomes more painful to watch when he’s matched up against a talented, true point guard.
Miller said he would vote for Drew as the Pac-12 player of the year if UCLA won the conference. And consider what he said about USC’s point guard after the Trojans beat Arizona on Wednesday night: “Jio Fontan dominated the game from the point guard position.”
Drew and Fontan combined for 18 assists, which also might say something about Lyons’ defense.
On Saturday night, the ESPN cameras caught Lyons jawing with Drew, but Drew got the last word … unless we get a rematch in the Pac-12 tournament.
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The last thing the Arizona Wildcats want to do is compare their losses, but Miller wasn’t sounding nearly as frustrated after losing at UCLA as he was three nights earlier at USC, when it allowed the Trojans to shoot 61.1 percent.
“You can be discouraged losing two in a row,” Miller said. “I’m more discouraged by the way we lost at USC than I am here. You don’t have the same feeling as we did in the last game.”
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It all goes back to defense: Arizona hasn’t lost this season when holding an opponent below 70 points.
The defense was better than it was against USC, but allowing UCLA to shoot 46.8 percent won’t keep Miller from being grumpy about that part of the game.
“Our defense once again is not able to answer the bell,” Miller said. “We’re not a good enough defensive team to win on the road like this.”
In its six losses, Arizona has allowed opponents to shoot 51.8 percent.
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Freshman Grant Jerrett scored 14 points, hitting 4 of 5 3-point shots, to lead the Wildcats in scoring for the first time. He nailed back-to-back 3-pointers with 1:35 left and 1:10 to go to bring Arizona within three points.
“A lot of poise for a freshman,” Miller said. “He’s been showing it and showing it. He did a great job.”
Another contributor off the bench — and this was an even greater surprise — was backup point guard Jordin Mayes. Recently demoted in the rotation behind Gabe York, Mayes played with previously missing confidence, scoring eight points.
He had scored only seven in the previous seven games.
“It couldn’t happen at a better time for us,” Miller said. “We need firepower off the bench.”