In quantifiable terms, the biggest loss the Arizona Wildcats suffered last spring is easy to figure.
Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen went No. 7 in the NBA Draft, will make $3.8 million this season and just might be the Chicago Bulls’ best player.
But after three losses last week and an effort he didn’t like in UA’s 91-56 win over Long Beach State on Wednesday, UA coach Sean Miller was lamenting a more intangible loss, one that permeated his locker room and team huddle, transferring energy throughout the Wildcats.
He was talking about a guy who was Arizona’s fifth-leading scorer last year and now plays for the Maine Red Claws of the G League.
“I don’t know if anyone here gave Kadeem Allen enough credit,” Miller said of UA’s departed fifth-year senior from last season. “But where you should really give him credit is right now. Because without him, man, it’s like pulling teeth right now. Because he is so unselfish, he’s such a hard-playing guy, he’s so talented defensively, that you couldn’t help but raise your level because of how hard he played.”
While mostly using precise coaching terms during a 24-minute postgame rant, Miller mentioned Allen repeatedly. While Allen was never an overly vocal leader, he was known for defense, hard work and helping foster the kind of culture that Miller craves in a program increasingly saddled with heavy roster transition.
“The hardest part about coaching Arizona in the climate we have now is that not too long ago when you had a culture, you’d turn the water on and it wasn’t gonna ever leave,” Miller said. “You might have a bad game, a bad moment. There’s always a player who can lose confidence. But the water was always on because this is who we are and what we do.
“But we lose 60 percent of our team every year. So there’s a lot of guys leaving and then when everybody comes back in it’s not like it’s already turned on. You almost have to turn your culture on every year. And that’s a hard deal.”
In one of his many exhaustive responses to questions Wednesday — including one in which he said players could view him as a “madman” for complaining so much following a big win — Miller continued:
“That’s why I think coaches like (Kentucky’s John) Calipari don’t get enough credit, because they do that every year and if you pay close attention to a team like Kentucky, they’re going to get better as the year goes on. You watch them in February and March and man they’re playing hard, they’re playing together. He develops that.
“This year at Arizona we’re either going to get a passing grade and develop that or we’re not and I know a lot of that’s going to be on me. But that’s a fight that I’m gonna fight.”
It’s a hard deal this year, Miller indicated, because the Wildcats don’t have that sort of bridge. He’s been relying on veterans Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier to provide the carryover and, during Thursday’s postgame press conference, both of them indicated they have received that message.
“He’s challenged myself and some of the older guys to just set the tone defensively, especially on the perimeter,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “We did a good job of that (against Long Beach State).”
Still, Miller said he needs his veteran players to “embody” a constant hard-working ethic, a trait he found woven through some of his previous UA teams. The Wildcats were the No. 1 team in defensive efficiency in 2013-14 and No. 3 in 2014-15 before slipping down into the top 30 in the past two seasons.
“We’ve been blessed to have a lot of teams like that,” Miller said. “Couple of years back with T.J. (McConnell), Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson). Couple years back with Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson. Kyle Fogg became that guy. Think about defense. No one yells over the microphone ‘good basket’ (after a defensive stop). No one in the media a lot of times is going to talk about you. But defensively, man, that is the biggest gap right now we have to jump up from.”
For now, the only tool Miller has is his bench. That is, guys either play hard or they sit — a hook Miller has been given since his roster mostly became complete with the returns of Brandon Randolph (concussion), Dylan Smith (team rules suspension) and Keanu Pinder (NCAA rules suspension) earlier this month.
To make that point clear, Miller quoted former Xavier coach Skip Prosser: “It’s like everyone goes for Halloween dressed up and gets candy. In college basketball, just because you put the uniform on, you may not get to play.”
Miller made that point clear to freshman Emmanuel Akot in both actions and words. Miller has previously spoken of Akot as being a potential defensive stopper, but played him just five minutes on Wednesday and indicated his knee tendinitis was only part of the problem.
Last Friday, Miller played Akot only one minute in the second half of UA’s loss to Purdue and said afterward that “his knee was bothering him … some of that’s youthfulness for him.”
On Wednesday, when also discussing Akot’s knees, Miller appeared to sarcastically use the opposite approach of a coach who cites a break between games for helping a player recover.
“The great opportunity on game day is you can always get a guy like him to rest his knees,” Miller said. “I think his knees will get better when he rests. Today was a great opportunity to get some rest. His knees were bothering him, no question.
“But he’s not a defensive stopper right now. We have to keep coaching him and bring out the best in him.”
Akot is only one of five UA freshmen and, other than double-double machine Deandre Ayton, Miller has made it clear all of them have some reality checks to go through.
“Every one of our players wants to play in the NBA,” Miller said. “Most of our younger players think they’re going to go into the NBA next spring. You have to be able to run full speed, turn your body, point (to the player you are defending), talk and match up on defense. There’s a progression here.
“Again, just because you come to Arizona, it’s like that trick-or-treat analogy, it doesn’t mean you get to play in the NBA. It’s about doing things the right way, playing with amazing effort and energy, doing it with no excuses, next day. Next day. Next day. And then you make a couple of shots, great things happen and you see younger players grow.
“But that’s the foundation, the starting point, and I think our effort’s terrible.”