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For Arizona, it’s another disappointing March Madness exit

LOS ANGELES — The power of love wasn’t enough for Arizona.

Another great regular season ended in disappointment for the second-seeded Wildcats with Sweet 16 exit from the NCAA men’s tournament at the hands of Clemson 77-72 as the program continues to falter in March.

Just like recent seasons, Arizona seemed to have all the qualities of a national championship team. It had its veteran stars back, plus the addition of past Final Four participants Caleb Love and Keshad Johnson. The offense was among the best units in the country. It had the perfect road to the Final Four by practically playing in its second backyard of Southern California.

But another season had another unsatisfactory end.

“We had the ability to get to a Final Four, but we didn’t get it,” Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd said. “That happens.”

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Lloyd has done a masterful job in his three seasons at Arizona, making it a national power that’s consistently in the conversation for a No. 1 seed. The 88 wins under Lloyd is the third most in the country since the start of the 2021-22 season, and in the tournament Arizona has been a No. 1 seed once and a No. 2 seed twice.

But in those tournaments, the Wildcats have lost to teams that were significantly lower seeds. In 2022, the No. 1 seed Wildcats lost to No. 5 seed Houston in the Sweet 16. Last season, it was the stunner as a No. 2 seed to No. 15 seed Princeton in the first round. Now this time around, it’s a loss to a No. 6 seed that keeps them out of the regional final. In its last six NCAA Tournament appearances, Arizona has lost to a team seeded at least four spots below them, which is the longest streak in since seeding began in 1979, according to Optastats.

Lloyd will be Arizona’s coach for likely years to come, but the postseason results aren’t sitting well for a fanbase that’s craving tournament success. The Wildcats haven’t advanced to the Elite Eight since 2015, with three of its last five appearance in March Madness ending in the regional semifinal. It hasn’t made the Final Four since 2001, and the team now gets ready to play in what is already a crowded Big 12 next season.

Thursday’s result can’t entirely be pinned on Arizona’s woes; Clemson deserves credit for what it’s done this postseason, crushing New Mexico and shutting down high-powered offenses in Baylor and now Arizona, especially when the crowd inside Crypto.com Arena felt like it was the McKale Center with how many Arizona fans were in attendance. Yet Arizona didn’t help its cause.

Arizona was the third-highest scoring team in Division I. It only managed 72 points Thursday with a major boost from the foul line. It entered the night 10th in the country in shooting. It shot 25-for-67 (37.3%). Arizona was 19th in 3-point shooting percentage. It had its worst night behind the arc this season at 5-for-28 (17.9%). During a 10 minute stretch in the second half, Arizona didn’t make a single field goal with 13-consecutive misses.

It was also a tough night for Pac-12 player of the year Caleb Love. Despite have strong performances in North Carolina to the national title game in 2022, Love struggled to make shots. He was 0-for-9 from 3-point land and was 5-for-18 on the night with 13 points.

Perhaps the most questionable decision making from Thursday night’s loss was the amount of 3-point shots. The Wildcats were ranked 193rd in the country in the 3-point attempts a game, yet it attempted them 28 times Thursday, the second-most tries in a game behind the 35 attempts in the blowout win over Long Beach State in the first round.

Clemson players said it wanted to force contested shots on the night, and it was something they were willing to live with as far as attempts. They sensed the frustration, and knew they were going to keep chucking shots up in hopes of turning the game around.

“We knew their guys like to get up shots,” said Clemson guard Chase Hunter. “A few players are volume scorers. We wanted to make it hard for them. When they don’t make it easy, when you don’t see it going in, your confidence gets down. That’s what we wanted to do to them.”

Despite the struggles on the outside shots, Arizona was having success inside. It outscored Clemson 40-30 in the paint and when driving inside, the Wildcats were getting to the foul line frequently. They had 25 free throw attempts compared to Clemson’s 16, which mostly came in the final minutes of the game.

So why did Arizona keep trying to make 3-pointers?

“We settled for a lot of tough shots,” Lloyd said. “They got it going offensively a little bit and we just never quite did until later in the first half. The second half we made a more concerted effort. We wanted to attack the guys, move the ball, attack, drive closeouts, play with our feet on the ground in the paint. And our guys did a much better job of that in the second half.

“Some of them were good looks and shots we’ve made all season, and today they just didn’t go in,” he said.

Lloyd said even despite the shooting woes, his team deserves credit for being in a position to win. But the credit can only take a team so far. Clemson coach Brad Brownell said what was key in keeping Arizona from generating any solid momentum late in the game was the switch to a zone defense.

“We knew that they were just putting their head down and driving and trying to get fouls, and our frontline was falling apart with fouls,” he said. “We just hoped that we could pack it in a little bit, try to keep them in front of us a little bit more.”

So far, every challenge Brownell and his team have made this tournament have worked. Clemson is now headed to its first Elite Eight appearance since 1980 and only second in team history. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are headed back to Arizona, only it’s not to Glendale to play in the Final Four. It’s back to Tucson with another what-could-have-been ending to a season.

Lloyd isn’t giving up confidence. He believes the foundation built in his tenure will pave off in the future. He said he’s going to take some time to relax before getting to building next season. And just maybe, next season can finally break the Final Four drought.

“Our day in the sun will come,” he said.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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