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Arizona still a serious contender

A difficult night shooting - in every possible way - led to Arizona's second loss in four games, but that wasn't enough to knock the Wildcats off the top perch in the UPS Performance Index.

There were enough troubling signs in a pair of tight victories to drop the nation's No. 1 team to 10th in the Index.

In conjunction with STATS LLC, UPS has created a proprietary algorithm that gauges data covering the spectrum of a team's on-court performance. Highlighted statistics include effective field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage against, rebounding percentage, ball-handling efficiency and miscues. After being combined with winning percentage and strength-of-schedule metrics, the numbers are normalized and an overall index is created for all 345 NCAA Division I teams. The scores are not meant to reflect a traditional power poll, per se, but measure a broad range of excellence and overall balance.

Arizona (23-2) has lost twice since the beginning of February, but remains atop the Index even after its 69-66 defeat in double overtime at rival Arizona State on Friday.

The Wildcats' worst shooting performances of the season have come in their only two losses, as their 35.9 percent mark from the field against the Sun Devils was better only than their 32.3 percent shooting while falling at Cal on Feb. 1. Arizona went 4 for 16 from 3-point range Friday and is shooting 23.6 percent behind the arc in February, but the roughest aspect of the loss in Tempe was a 16-for-30 performance at the free-throw line.

At 65.7 percent from the charity stripe, the No. 4 Wildcats are 292nd in the country entering Monday's action.

"We missed a ton of free throws, heck we've missed a ton of free throws all year," coach Sean Miller said. "Eventually, that's going to run its course and we're going to lose because we're leaving too many points on the table."

Miller is concerned because that issue could potentially cancel out a defense that's the UPS Index's second-most efficient behind Southern University (14-11) and allows the fourth-fewest points per game (57.5) in the nation.

With third-leading scorer Brandon Ashley out for the season, Arizona is down to 125th in the Index's offensive efficiency.

"Our offense is continuing to put more and more pressure on our defense," Miller said. "You can only guard so well."

Syracuse, the No. 1 team in the AP poll and one of two remaining unbeatens along with No. 3 Wichita State, has been guarding quite well this month while holding opponents to 52.5 points per game in its four victories.

Its problems lie at the other end of the floor. The Orange needed Tyler Ennis' 35-foot prayer at the buzzer to escape with a 58-56 win at Pittsburgh last Monday, then shot just 35.2 percent Saturday against North Carolina State, eking out a 56-55 victory thanks to C.J. Fair's layup with 6.7 seconds remaining.

Some key defensive plays allowed Fair to seal the deal and lift Syracuse to its 25th win. The Orange forced two turnovers in the final 21 seconds, the last coming on Rakeem Christmas' steal in the lane off a trap in the left corner, leading to Fair's layup in transition.

"We have to get our offense going better. They played a little slow in the end," coach Jim Boeheim said. "They played fast enough and our offense just wasn't good enough."

The Orange dropped two spots to 10th in the UPS Index behind an offense that fell to 158th in the nation in efficiency.

"I think moving forward for us to be a good team, we've got to play better offense," Boeheim said. "I don't look at our record. I feel like we played about really, overall well enough to be 20-5. I think that's really what we are. We haven't played better than that."

The fellow unbeaten Shockers rose to fifth in the Index after combining for 92 second-half points against Southern Illinois and Evansville, turning tight games at the break into wins by a total of 27 points.

The Missouri Valley leaders are four victories away from a 31-0 regular season, though it's certainly been an easier ride in the conference with former rival Creighton gone to the Big East.

The Bluejays (21-4) are loving life in their new league, where they are the nation's most efficient offense and coming off their most impressive game of the season. Less than a month after hitting 21 3-pointers and dropping 96 points on then-No. 4 Villanova, Creighton shot a season-high 64.2 percent Saturday in winning the rematch 101-80.

Doug McDermott had a season-best 39 points, becoming the nation's leading scorer in the process as his team jumped the Wildcats for first place in the Big East.

"I didn't think we could play much better than we did at Villanova," coach Greg McDermott said. "But I'm not sure we didn't play better today. We didn't have the crazy shooting night from the 3-point line, but the other parts of the game were really good."

Creighton moved up three spots in the Index to eighth - still one behind Villanova, which fell three slots.

Florida (23-2) and Kansas (19-6) remained second and third behind Arizona while Louisville (21-4) moved up one to fourth. Wisconsin (21-5) is sixth after victories over Minnesota and Michigan to extend its winning streak to four, while Big Ten co-leader Michigan State (21-5) dropped to ninth after a stunning 60-51 home loss to Nebraska on Sunday.

Eastern Washington (12-13) made the Index's biggest leap, 35 spots to No. 199 after going 25 of 49 from 3-point range in wins over Sacramento State and Northern Arizona. Butler (12-13) took a 36-spot tumble after two home losses, first by 14 against Xavier and by five Thursday against Creighton.

The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2016
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved

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