The Arizona Wildcats took Friday off and practiced for only about 80 minutes on Saturday.
But that’s not to suggest they’re taking it easy. It’s just that when you’re heading into the late season and down a starting player, you can’t waste energy.
“I wouldn’t say we’re going easier as much as limiting our time as much as possible,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “Where and when we go, it’s meaningful. There’s a lot of effort and concentration. But it’s not as long of a duration.”
The Wildcats have had a lot to cram into their minutes this weekend, with minor injuries, shooting and rebounding issues, and Oregon State coming to town for a 5 p.m. game today.
Here’s how Miller addressed what his squad is contending with during a post-practice interview with the Star on Saturday:
Miller may have been joking about the reason for his split pants Thursday — demonstrating a block-out — but he was dead serious about Arizona’s defensive-rebounding issues. The Wildcats allowed Oregon to collect 13 offensive boards, and were outrebounded 40-38 against Stanford on Jan. 29, even before Brandon Ashley was lost.
“The slippage that we have in defensive rebounding — we have to block out better, have some guys take that part of our defense more seriously,” Miller said. “There are certain situations where our guards have to just come up with the rebound, and we’re trying to hold all of our players and the team accountable for when we make the team miss. We can’t afford to give them second shots.
“It breaks everything down. Some of what it hurts is our own offense, because instead of us pushing it in transition, where we’re at our best, we find ourselves where either the ball went out of bounds or we fouled, which is not good. Sometimes they get another shot. With Oregon, a couple of their biggest three-point shots came off an offensive rebound.”
Arizona has shot 40 percent or worse in its past three games, but Miller doesn’t blame that on a lack of confidence. Rather, he says, the Wildcats just aren’t working well enough to get good shots.
“It’s about continued execution and development. I can’t really pinpoint it. Sometimes it’s as simple as making the good shots that we take, taking it to the foul line and shooting a high percentage. Other times it’s about screening the defense better or having more spacing.
“I think what we’re looking for is, ‘Are we taking good shots?,’ and I think for the most part we are. There’s always a few that you wish you didn’t, but it’s always a matter of knocking them down. Nick (Johnson) went on a tear for about a month, and in a 35-game season, you’re going to have a couple of valleys. But the good news for him is that although his three-point shot hasn’t fallen recently, he’s played really good. He’s played some of his best games, and if the three would have gone in during these games, he would have had the best games he’s had at Arizona.”
SETTLING NEW ROLES
Miller said Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are making the biggest adjustment without Ashley around. Hollis-Jefferson used to play mostly small forward, but now plays both forward spots. Gordon started at small forward and played mostly power forward, but now starts at power forward and plays some center, but no small forward.
“It’s just about (Gordon) playing with a lot of confidence, him having that attacking mentality that makes him so good, and not worrying about missing a free throw. What you don’t want is him thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do? I’m playing a different role.’ Both with him and Rondae, the more practice time, the more we talk, the more game experience they have — the more they’ll settle in.”
Gordon used the off day Friday to rehab his sprained ankle. Miller said he returned to practice Saturday, and should be fine today.
“Over the long season, you get nicks and bruises,” Miller said. “He certainly turned his ankle against Oregon, but he was able to come back in the game, did a great job (Friday) with our day off doing treatment, and was able to practice (Saturday). Although he’s a little sore, I think he’s going to be fine.”
The Wildcats have beaten Oregon State five straight times, but the Beavers still have some of the same players who took UA to overtime at McKale two seasons ago and beat the Wildcats in Corvallis in 2010-11.
Now OSU is 5-5 in Pac-12 games, and Miller is bracing for the Beavers’ experience, toughness and zone defenses.
“The striking thing about Oregon State is they have upperclassmen who have started for multiple years — Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier, Angus Brandt, (Eric) Moreland and they have a freshman point guard (Hallice Cooke) who’s playing as well as any freshman in the league. We respect their transition, we respect their offense, and we know from a physical perspective that it’s always a battle when you play them. They’re rugged, they rebound on both ends, and they have men. They have older players who have been through the conference season so many times. I think that’s part of their success, why they’ve won some really good games this year.
“They’ve played most of their season without (previously suspended) Eric Moreland, who’s one of their best players. They’ve played games without Angus Brandt, they’ve played games without Devon Collier. It’s like our team — when you take a starter off or a significant piece off, it doesn’t always look right. I think some of their losses have come because they haven’t had their entire team together. Right now they do.”