In two games last weekend, Sean Miller’s team scored 204 points, ran the country’s second-most efficient offense and introduced the college basketball world to the many ways Deandre Ayton cannot be stopped.
Yet these were the numbers the Arizona coach kept talking about Wednesday, during his weekly media conference, even when the questions were about offense: The 30 free throws NAU shot in the season opener and the 14 3-pointers (on 28 attempts) that UMBC made on Sunday.
Yes, he was talking about that “D” word again.
“As much as I think we’re all excited about our efficiency or what we can be on offense, I’m equally concerned about our defense,” Miller said. “Our defense hasn’t been very good and it’s really not been one thing. … Our issues are really from a team perspective — effort, concentration, our guards across the board, keeping their man in front and doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Miller said he expects a stiffer defensive challenge from Cal State Bakersfield (1-1) on Thursday. The coach is concerned that his guards couldn’t stop NAU from penetrating, which in turn led to desperation fouls that landed the Lumberjacks at the line for 30 free throws.
Against UMBC, Miller said he was disappointed his big men struggled on ball screens, helping the Retrievers get open to hit half of their 28 3-pointers.
“Fourteen made threes against UMBC, 30 free throws against NAU. Neither stat is good for our future,” Miller said. “So we’re looking for guys to come in and blitz the quarterback. We don’t need the wide receiver who’s looking for the touchdowns right now.”
By now, you’d think senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright could just shrug or even roll his eyes over this stuff. The Wildcats struggle a bit defensively early in the season and, well, it’s time for Coach Miller to preach about defense, maybe threaten some guys’ playing time or whatever.
Right? Yes, and no.
PJC has also been around long enough to know what works for the Wildcats and what drives his coach.
“He hangs his hat on defense, and we’ve had to do that every year since I’ve been here,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “We start on defense and that’s how we get out and that’s how we play. He just wants us to be the best we can be and reach extreme heights, reach our potential. The only way we can do that is if we continually get better on defense every day.”
But this season, Miller has six or seven potent scorers, maybe more. He has a potential No. 1 NBA pick in Ayton, two projected first-rounders in freshmen Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot, first- or second-round prospects in Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins, smart, patient shooting from Jackson-Cartwright … plus some good long-range shooting from Dylan Smith and the oft-flawless offensive moves inside from Dusan Ristic.
So with all that, do the Wildcats really have to obsess over just about every point they mistakenly give up?
Yes, the way Miller describes it.
“I don’t want to get caught up in the world of just trying to outscore people because I think we all know how that works,” Miller said. “You win some, you lose some. We have to be good on both ends and I think our commitment to doing that needs to improve.”
Miller pointed toward the UA’s last two NCAA Tournament losses as proof. While the Wildcats made the Elite Eight in 2014 and 2015 with a defensive efficiency rated among the top three nationally by Kenpom.com, they were 29th the last two seasons — and were upset each time in the NCAAs.
While it may be easy to remember the 18 turnovers and 27.3 percent first-half shooting in a first-round loss to Wichita State in 2016 — or the fact that Lauri Markkanen didn’t take a shot for the last 11 minutes in the UA’s Sweet 16 loss to Xavier last season — Miller has other memories.
Namely, that Wichita State plowed through the UA defense to hit 54 percent of its 2-point shots (making its 15 percent from 3-point range meaningless). And, last season, Miller recalled vividly the 18 points Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett scored in the first half, keeping the 11th-seeded Musketeers in position to pull off an eventual 73-71 upset.
So, to Miller, even an excellent offense sometimes isn’t enough.
“That’s one thing we talked to our team about,” Miller said. “Each of the last two years I wouldn’t say our team would be a known as a great defensive unit. We were top 30, and two years ago that got us a destructive loss against Wichita State, where they beat us up, threw us out of the way, and blew us out, kicked us out of the tournament. They were the bigger, stronger, rougher, more physical team. It wasn’t even close.
“We learned from that experience a year ago. But a big part of the loss to Xavier stemmed from our ability to get key stops in key moments, to keep a great offensive player like Trevon Bluiett from having a career half, a career game. What happened in that game was our defensive stopper got two early fouls (Kadeem Allen had two within the first three minutes), so others had to pick up for him.
“We couldn’t do it and I know fans always focus on the last shot or how we attack the zone. I’m sure we could have done better with that but if we were the more consistent, tougher defensive team, we could have found a way to win that game and advance.
“So I’ll use those two as an example. Trying to outscore the other team isn’t going to work because you’re going to have that moment.”