Arizona heads home after loss to Houston, but a question remains: Will Bennedict Mathurin be back?

Now that the Arizona Wildcats have been eliminated from the men’s NCAA Tournament, questions about the future of Bennedict Mathurin linger. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Kyler Edwards reacts as his Houston Cougars take a convincing lead over the Arizona Wildcats in their Sweet 16 game Thursday in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Despite barely escaping TCU in the second round of the men’s NCAA Tournament, the University of Arizona and its fan base remained confident about a deep run into March Madness.

That confidence soon turned into disappointment when the top-seeded Wildcats lost convincingly to No. 5 Houston, 72-60, on Thursday in the south regional semifinal in San Antonio, Texas. The Cougars never trailed, and their defense caused Arizona to have one of its worst offensive performances of the season.

As a team, the Wildcats shot 33% from the field and failed to score more than 60 points for only the second time this season. Houston’s stingy defense was the reason Arizona couldn’t make a second-half comeback, something it was known for all season. Jalen Terry led all Wildcats scorers with 17 points to go along with his six rebounds and three assists.

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“They’re great defensively,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said of the Cougars. “They’re a hard team to get runs on because offensively they control the tempo, and they’re great (at) offensive rebounding. It’s hard to get multiple stops in a row to make those kinds of runs.”

In the offseason, one of the biggest questions for Arizona will be the status of sophomore guard Bennedict Mathurin. Will he return to Tucson next season or declare for the 2022 NBA Draft? For now, Mathurin isn’t sure what lies ahead.

“Next thing for me is to get in the gym and get better,” he said. “Whatever the future has for me, (it) has for me.”

If he pursues his dreams of playing professionally, few could blame him considering the improvement he made his freshman year to his sophomore season at Arizona. This year, the Montreal native scored 17.2 points per game, compared to 10.2 as a freshman.

Because of his solid improvement, Mathurin was named a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award and Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award. He was also selected as a Second-Team All-American.

Thursday, in what could be Mathurin’s last game at Arizona, he ended with 15 points on 4-of-14 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists against Houston. The Pac-12 Player of the Year exactly doubled that when he scored 30 against the Horned Frogs in the previous round when the Wildcats took the game to overtime to avoid an upset. What really sets Mathurin apart, though, is his combination of shooting and elite athleticism at 6-foot-6, 210 pounds, which is why an ESPN mock NBA Draft done in January showed Mathurin as a top-10 lottery pick.

Before Thursday’s game, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said Mathurin is the best guard his team has seen this season.

“I was in the NBA for six seasons, and he’s an NBA guy. He’s not going to go in and be a role player. He’ll start,” Sampson said during Wednesday’s press conference. “He has everything you need. He can create a shot (and) is a tremendous defender. He’s got next level acceleration, and he can really shoot.”

Lloyd also sees that talent in his sophomore guard, but he doesn’t want Mathurin to get complacent.

“The main thing for me is I want Ben to leave Arizona with the habits and the work ethic required to be a good NBA player because it’s not going to be easy,” Lloyd said Wednesday. “This year hasn’t been easy for Ben. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, and nothing ever is. So if he leaves with those habits and the character that he already has, I think he’s got an opportunity to have a great NBA career.”

Mathurin was a big reason why Arizona had the success it did in the first year of the post-Sean Miller era. Lloyd’s 33 wins are the third-most in a single season in Wildcat history, and he’s the ninth coach in NCAA Division I to win 30 games in his or her first year.

“I think we really built some foundational pieces this year that are really going to serve us well moving forward,” Lloyd said.

With Houston’s dominant victory over Arizona, the Cougars advance to the Elite 8, where they will face the No. 2 seed Villanova Wildcats for a chance to go to the Final Four in New Orleans. This is the second-straight year that Sampson has coached the Cougars into the regional final.

Tip-off is 7:09 p.m. MST Saturday, and TBS will broadcast the game.

Austin Nicholson aws-tin nih-kul-sin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Austin Nicholson expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Nicholson, who has interned as a sports reporter with The Arizona Republic and KTAR, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.