Not many folks were on hand to watch Arizona’s Bahamian collapse in person last week, but word traveled fast.
“The quick fall of Arizona,” an ESPN.com headline said.
“Why the preseason No. 2 team is in a tailspin,” said NBC Sports.com.
“Arizona’s problems are many,” said the Boston Globe.
And then there was a CBS Sports podcast entitled simply: “What in the world has happened to Arizona?”
But even if that one made it to Sean Miller’s car speakers, the way the UA coach described it, that wouldn’t affect the way he’s steering.
“The panic — that ‘I’m gonna drive my car into this wall because we lost three in a row’ — that’s not gonna happen,” Miller said Tuesday, during his weekly news conference. “We have too much talent. We have too many good things in our future and it’s too early in the year, (and we’re) playing a lot of young players.
“If we would have won one game (in the Battle 4 Atlantis), would the picture be a whole lot different? No, it wouldn’t have. The only way that picture would be different for us right now is if we won two or three and quite frankly that wasn’t in the cards down there. We weren’t good enough to do that.”
Nobody would argue with Miller about that. The Wildcats struggled defensively, offensively, with ball control and on the rebounding glass in losses to North Carolina State, SMU and Purdue.
Their problems were so broad and deep that the national media has begun to speculate that the program’s behind-the-scenes issues could be to be affecting them. (Actually, said ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, “there are obviously distractions around the program right now.”)
To date, that would include the ongoing FBI investigation, the independent investigation UA has commissioned, the brief NCAA-related suspensions to assistant coach Mark Phelps and senior forward Keanu Pinder — plus the team-rules suspension to Dylan Smith.
So far, the most permanent result from it all has been the loss of popular assistant coach Book Richardson due to federal bribery and fraud charges, an absence that could be affecting team dynamics.
But when asked about that loss and the potential distractions on Tuesday, Miller didn’t answer directly.
“You know, my focus is always on the same things,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can’t control. Focus on those you can. I’ll give you a great example: I can’t make Rawle Alkins play tomorrow night. I can think about it. It can consume me. I can talk about the value of somebody like him …” but Alkins is still out with a broken foot, Miller said, for an uncertain time.
Freshman Brandon Randolph said the players aren’t thinking about the off-court issues, either.
“We’re perfectly fine,” he said. “We’re just learning.”
So starting Wednesday against Long Beach State, the Wildcats will try to re-boot the season by working on and learning from what they can control. Here’s how Miller described the work ahead:
• He has skin in this game, too. Miller took some of the blame for Arizona’s 0-3 performance in the Bahamas this way:
“I was disappointed that our team wasn’t more ready, didn’t have more confidence, wasn’t further along in that tournament and that’s on me,” Miller said. “What’s really on me moving forward is to do better and fix the things I know we can fix and improve. We’ve already improved a little bit. Today another stop and we’ve got to carry it into a game.”
• It’s also on the veterans. Miller spoke of the contributions UA received from fifth-year senior Kadeem Allen last season.
“His rebounding, his toughness, his unselfishness permeated throughout our young team. He showed the younger players the way. We feel his void right now. For somebody like Parker (Jackson-Cartwright) or Allonzo (Trier), going down to the Bahamas, I think they know now more than ever how important their voice is, how important it is for them to show the way, that leadership and being able to play on both sides of the ball is something we really, really need from those guys right now.”
• They need defensive help. Lots of it. Having spoken earlier this season about converting freshman Emmanuel Akot to a defensive stopper, Miller has a more basic goal in mind now.
“I think instead of developing a stopper we just have to develop a guy who can get a stop. There’s a big difference. We have that defensive lineman and he hasn’t had a sack in three years. It would be nice if he could get one. We don’t need him to be Lawrence Taylor. We just need him to touch the quarterback.
“There’s a starting point and a progression and our starting point has to be to keep the guy you’re guarding in front of you. When you’re chasing him, be within touching distance, when he shoots it, get a hand up. … Get as low in a defensive stance as you can. Don’t run into the screen. Your goal is to run around it.
“Shot goes up – hit someone in the chest, block out, don’t let him run around you. That’s where we’re at and that’s really across the board.”
• Hustle isn’t an option.
“You have to be at your very best. We can’t accept anything less. It’s not your choice whether you want to run back when the shot’s missed. You have to sprint back. The sprint versus the jog — that’s something we can control.”
• Deandre Ayton needs some rebounding help, especially on the defensive side. Ayton averaged 9.0 defensive rebounds a game in the Bahamas, but his teammates collected only another 47.
“I would say Deandre is hard to criticize — a guy who’s the third-leading defensive rebounder in the country (Ayton was actually No. 2 through Monday, with 9.33). Maybe we need him to be No. 1.”
• The other freshmen need to wake up. While Ayton played well in his home country and Randolph emerged late in the Wildcats’ final game, the Bahamas were largely a shock to a team that beat three low- to mid-major opponents at McKale before arriving.
Miller said if he had a chance to reschedule this season, he would have added a private closed scrimmage in the preseason against a high-level team to work out issues (though he actually couldn’t, because the UA needed instead to hold two open exhibition games to meet its season-ticket minimum.)
“Early against NC State (in Arizona’s first Bahamas loss), I think everybody was surprised that ‘Wow, this game’s hard.’ We never experienced anything but a blowout and with a group that’s as young as we are, our confidence left us. It’s almost as if something was wrong. We had a hard time defending them, we missed free throws and didn’t execute defensively. Against Purdue it was the entirety. … We have to become an overall better basketball team.”
• They need time, and they’ll have it. Miller noted that “nobody is walking around here happy” but that “the sun came up” after the Wildcats returned home from the Bahamas, and there’s still plenty of time until the Pac-12 season and postseason.
“There are stories in sports every year that are even worse than ours, that at some point later that same season that that group, that team, coach, can look back and say, ‘The best thing that happened to this year’s team is what we learned when we lost three games in a row at the Battle of Atlantis. From that point on we were able to fix these things; we knew our problems. We knew our strengths, and we got back on track and we’re at a level of play now that maybe we wouldn’t have been if we didn’t experience that so early in the year.’
“Because it is early regardless of whether we did well there or not. Now it’s up to us to make that true and learn from it. It’s a growth moment for a lot of individual players. It’s a growth moment for our coaching staff. It’s about learning from it, improving and being much better.”