PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — After just two games this season, alarm bells started going off for Sean Miller.
The UA coach just couldn’t get everybody else to hear them.
Maybe it was too hard to hear cries about defensive troubles when Deandre Ayton was throwing down double-doubles, and Allonzo Trier was scoring 30 points in easy UA wins over NAU and UMBC earlier this month.
But those games also subtly foreshadowed the second-ranked Wildcats’ shocking 90-84 loss to North Carolina State in the quarterfinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday, and Miller knew it.
UA allowed NAU to take 30 free-throws on Nov. 10, indicating the Wildcats were getting beaten off the dribble often, while allowing UMBC to hit 14 of 28 3-pointers two days later.
“Fourteen made threes against UMBC, 30 free throws against NAU. Neither stat is good for our future,” Miller said three days after the UMBC game. “So we’re looking for guys to come in and blaze the quarterback. We don’t need the wide receiver who’s looking for the touchdowns right now.”
Both of those defensive issues hit the Wildcats squarely over the head Wednesday, in the high-profile, ESPN-covered Bahamas tournament, where Arizona was bracketed for a possible final game against No. 5 Villanova on Friday.
The Wildcats won’t face Villanova now. They’ll face SMU, which lost 61-58 to Northern Iowa, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, and UA also won’t be on ESPN or ESPN2 at all, since its remaining games in the consolation bracket will now be streamed only on ESPN3 (via ESPN.com/watch or the ESPN App).
As a result, the all-American level play of Ayton and Trier won’t be noticed as much, either. Ayton set career-highs in scoring (27 points) and rebounding (14) in his return home Wednesday, posting his fourth double-double in as many games, while Trier scored 24 of his 27 points in the second half… and it still wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough, because N.C. State shot 49.1 percent from the field, made 40 percent of its 3-pointers and hit 80 percent of its 35 free-throws.
That’s even more offense.
“We had plenty of offense but our defense was really, really bad,” Miller said. “Until we get that corrected, we’re going to win a few and then we’re gonna lose a few. The last couple of years (at this time of the season) maybe our offense wasn’t as far along but our collective will defensively and our togetherness defensively more than made up for it.
“Right now it kind of looks like I’m the new coach trying to teach these guys a system, because we really were out of sync. That’s to N.C. State’s credit but clearly, the results speak for themselves. You can’t win on a neutral court like this, giving up 90 points and letting them be as efficient as they were."
As embarrassing as the loss was for Arizona, it was a celebration for N.C. State, and a validation of the new, hard-nosed, aggressive defensive style Kevin Keatts installed after he moved over from UNC Wilmington to replace the fired Mark Gottfried.
“We’re trying to build a culture here,” Keatts said. “A debate always happens when you’re a first-year coach: Do you put in your system in, or play to what you have in your program? We put our system in and these guys are making me look good.”
Miller agreed. A coaching friend of Keatts, Miller praised him before and after the game, suggesting it won’t be long before the Wolfpack is feared.
“What he did at UNC Wilmington really speaks for itself,” Miller said. “You can always see their imprint on the team. They play very, very hard and together and have a great system on offense.
“Whatever they were predicted (to do this season), I think they left that a long time ago. They’ll be a tough out, a tough team to beat, especially at home. And they’ll only get better because the things they do are very new to their players.”
The Wolfpack led by nine points in the first half and up to 10 in the second, and while the leads changed several times, North Carolina State answered every UA rally. The Wildcats never led by more than two points and never for more than 89 seconds.
“I felt the whole night we were just trying to stop them,” guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “We would score or make a run and they would come back. It was more a function of us.”
While the game was tied at 40 at halftime, N.C. State took early leads of up to nine points in the first five minutes of the second half before Trier rattled off eight points in a span of just 1:04 to pull the Wildcats into a brief lead.
Jackson-Cartwright hit Trier for a layup to cut the Wolfpack’s lead to 62-58 while a steal by Brandon Randolph led to a dunk by Trier to make it 60-62. Trier came back again for another dunk to tie the game at 62 with 9:42 to go, then hit two free throws 25 seconds later to give UA a 64-62 lead.
But N.C. State pulled ahead in the final minutes and a turnover on a perimeter handoff pass from Alex Barcello to Jackson-Cartwright, with 1:48 left and the Wolfpack up by eight, all but sealed UA’s fate.
In the first half, the Wildcats were down 15-6 early and trailed nearly all of the half. Miller tried a new starting lineup with sophomore Dylan Smith at small forward instead of Emmanuel Akot, but even though Smith scored the first basket of the game, the Wildcats went off to their worst start of the season.
Arizona coughed up three turnovers within the first five minutes, two by Trier, and N.C. State converted them into five points. The Wolfpack also hit three of their first six 3-pointers to take a 15-6 lead with 13:42 left, when Miller called timeout.
Their defense was lacking then, and Miller found it was lacking the rest of the game, too, in many areas, especially communication and effort.
“We really had everything going” wrong, Miller said. “After a couple of our best offensive plays we had a really hard time matching up on a made field goal. A couple of times we had two players go with one (N.C. State player) and it was, 'Who has him?’ (N.C. State) was just shooting a wide open shots because of our inability to communicate.
“Early in the game their fast push up and down almost knocked us on our heels. We weren’t able to get back. … It really wasn’t just our guards, just our bigs. It was a collection, it was our team.”
If there’s good news in all this for the Wildcats, maybe it’s that Arizona can get right back on the court Thursday and begin to fix things with a sense of urgency.
Because now, it isn’t just Miller who knows something is wrong.
His players, and the rest of the college basketball world know, too.
“The thing about a tournament like this is you learn, you grow, you improve because you challenge yourself with three games in three days,” Miller said. “Now, we’re going to have to learn how to handle some adversity.
"This could be a team here that has to fail a few times early in the year to correct and improve on some aspects that might just give us a chance to be really good down the road.”