Arizona basketball: Utah not so bad; Cats need better defense

Utah's Jordan Loveridge, battling with ASU's Carrick Felix on Wednesday, gave Arizona big problems in their first game.


SALT LAKE CITY - Like any smart player, 6-foot-6-inch Utah freshman Jordan Loveridge said he looked to take only "shots that were there" when he entered McKale Center on Jan. 5.

So he took them. A lot of them.

Loveridge scored 13 points in the first half with 3-of-4 three-point shooting, setting the stage for a second-half scare that nearly cost Arizona its three-point victory, and the trend was set into motion.

Loveridge is actually a power forward, a mostly inside player whom Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak sees as a guy "who can stretch the defense a little bit," but the Wildcats also have had trouble with big point guards and typically sized small forwards during the Pac-12 season.

Anybody launching perimeter shots well above 6-3 Nick Johnson, that is, can be trouble for the Wildcats.

For UCLA, big wings Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams combined for 38 points on 14-of-28 shooting against the Wildcats. Last Sunday, Cal wing Allen Crabbe torched the Wildcats for 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting. And on Thursday at Colorado, big point guard Spencer Dinwiddie had 21 points, and forward Xavier Johnson added 19.

"No question, that size," UA coach Sean Miller said after Colorado handed UA its second straight loss for the first time this season, 71-58.

Now it's Loveridge's turn again, just as Utah is coming off a 60-55 upset of ASU on Wednesday and has stayed in most every game under second-year coach Krystkowiak.

"I feel like every game we're not scared of anyone," Loveridge said. "We're just going to show how good we are."

While Loveridge mostly launched his Jan. 5 shots over fellow freshman Brandon Ashley, he may see some different faces today. Fed up with slow starts in UA's past three games, Miller said he "guaranteed" he would start a different lineup today - and that could involve Ashley sitting while Angelo Chol or possibly Grant Jerrett gets a look at the beginning of the game.

The Wildcats are looking for somebody, anybody, who can help them play better on both sides of the ball early in games.

Because to Miller, the Wildcats' recent struggles haven't been just about defending bigger guys - they're about defending anybody. UA allowed Cal to shoot 58.8 percent from the field in the second half on Feb. 10 and let Colorado shoot 59.1 percent in the second half in Boulder, Colo.

"Our defense just isn't there," Miller said. "Our defense has to improve."

Here's a few ways it can improve:

• Give Johnson a hand. Neither Johnson nor Miller say fatigue is an issue for the heavily leaned-on sophomore, but he is being asked to be a scorer, part-time playmaker and sometimes take on bigger opponents as the team's top defender

"Nick is not super human," UA forward Solomon Hill said after the Colorado loss. "It wasn't just one guy."

Miller also said it's impossible to pinpoint one person or area that's a problem defensively, noting that Crabbe scored six of his points off turnovers and four on backdoor cuts where Johnson was not involved.

"It isn't just Nick," he said. "It's really a team thing where we just were getting caught up in ball screens, screens off the ball, and (not) challenging shots. In back-to-back games, we've taken an incredible punch by both opponents, and our defense was not nearly good enough to win both games. We need 80 minutes of defense, and it just wasn't there."

• Never ease up. Cal and Colorado both hit several tough shots near the end of the shot clock, and that may only partly be because of Crabbe's considerable shooting skill and some just plain good luck.

"Whether it was Allen Crabbe coming off that pindown (screen) from the side, or Xavier Johnson (shooting) from the left wing," Miller said, "we've certainly hit a spell where teams have hit some great shots against us.

"But that's all part of it."

• Work the offense. The Wildcats' mediocre offense lately is affecting it in two ways on the other side of the ball.

It's common for offensive frustration to slide into a lack of defensive intensity, so it may be no coincidence that Arizona shot under 40 percent against Cal and just 34.5 percent in the first half at Colorado while defending both teams poorly.

But another troubling aspect for Miller is that, even though UA averaged only 10 turnovers in its past two games, some of those turnovers were especially costly on the defensive end.

"There have been turnovers that lead right to dunks," Miller said. "A couple of turnovers we've had have been head-scratchers - it's not a charge, it's a deflected pass or a pass that's just to the other team - and that's hurt us more in the past two games."

At Colorado, "in the second half there were two-on-one plays that led to breakaway dunks, and when that happens, you have to acknowledge it isn't just your defense. It's everything."


• What: No. 9 Arizona at Utah

• When: 1 p.m.

• TV; radio: Pac-12 Arizona; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM

Can't get a stop

Recent strong shooting performances against Arizona:

Date Opponent Player FGM-FGA Pts

Jan. 5 Utah Jordan Loveridge 7-14 17

Jan. 24 UCLA Jordan Adams 6-12 15

Shabazz Muhammad 8-16 23

Feb. 10 Cal Allen Crabbe 12-15 31

Justin Cobbs 8-14 21

Feb. 14 Colorado Xavier Johnson 7-9 19

Spencer Dinwiddie 5-9 21