UA HOOPS

Arizona basketball notebook: Soft foes or not, Cats work hard

Miller says No. 9 UA needs no 'pep talk' to face NAU, Texas Tech
2012-11-27T00:00:00Z 2012-11-28T21:27:51Z Arizona basketball notebook: Soft foes or not, Cats work hardBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 27, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The Arizona Wildcats could easily be leading the life of leisure these days.

While teams all over the country have been sweating out holiday tournaments and tense nonconference games, the Wildcats are still enjoying an eight-day Thanksgiving break.

They're 3-0, with nobody really having challenged them yet, and their national ranking crept up again Monday by one notch to No. 9 in The Associated Press Top 25.

And this week? Their two opponents are both mired in major reconstruction efforts, with NAU working in new coach Jack Murphy and Texas Tech dealing with the aftermath of ex-coach Billy Gillespie's controversial preseason departure.

It could be the softest spot in Arizona's schedule all season.

But other than taking three days of rest during the break, UA coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats haven't taken it easy.

To him, they can't afford to.

"We control us. No one has to give these guys a pep talk or a slap in the butt to know every game is an important game," he said about hosting NAU (2-3) on Wednesday and traveling Saturday to Texas Tech (4-0), which beat Jackson State 84-75 on Monday night.

"I know I sound like a broken record, but there's an equal penalty for winning and for losing, regardless of who this team is.

"We want to make sure we're at our best. If we lose a game, it's not because we weren't ready, but it's because the other team earned the right to beat us."

Miller does have some ammo to keep his guys alert. The most powerful remains the Wildcats' trouble in defending the three-point shot, having allowed opponents to sink an average 9.7 threes per game at a 39.2-percent rate.

Miller said the defensive slippage is partly a result of the team's youth, and playing down to the level of its opponents at times, and that the numbers have slid enough to command their attention.

"There's an enormous amount that we can correct," Miller said. "I don't think it's going to go from where we are today to being the best in the country, but I do think that (defense) can improve significantly each week and every game from this point on. And as we approach Christmas, we can have that almost repaired and be something we can look at as doing well."

Ashley keeps rolling

After collecting 20 points and 10 rebounds against Long Beach State in his first start, freshman forward Brandon Ashley has kept a firm grip on his starting job in practices.

"Brandon has really established himself as being on the upswing," Miller said. "You guys see it in games; we see it every day in practice. He led our team in practice points leading up to the (LBSU) game, and even this past week he's continued to do a good job.

"He's played with a lot of confidence. He's learning how to play with more effort and he's getting better on both ends of the ball. It's exciting to see somebody as young improve through his work ethic."

Miller said he is likely to start Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski in the post again Wednesday against NAU but said that was "no slight" to Grant Jerrett, who started the first two games at power forward.

"It's not as if (Jerrett) has not practiced well, but Brandon is and he's continuing to do well," Miller said. "There may come a time, maybe as soon as the next game, that we start a different lineup. I've talked about rotating those guys. But even as we rotate who starts, I think their roles are very similar."

Family ties

With Murphy, the former UA aide and son-in-law of ex-UA athletic director Jim Livengood, NAU is expected to continue its annual appearances at McKale Center.

Miller said it "makes sense" to play an in-state team, especially one with personal ties to the UA program. Murphy said a game is already set for next year and that he likes playing UA, where he served in several roles under Lute Olson.

"It's something good for the state and it's good for us to play one of our sister schools," Murphy said. "I know our fans really like it and I have a good relationship with Sean and his staff."

Murphy said he came to know Miller when Miller was hired at UA in 2009 and has also befriended UA associate head coach James Whitford, who worked an NAU clinic last summer.

In turn, Miller said Murphy has been a "real resource" for him in learning the history of the UA program and the people around it.

"He's someone who loves our basketball program and our university," Miller said, "and he's always been very popular because he has one of those personalities you can't help but like - and you can really sense that watching him take over the NAU program.

"Jack is a young, fiery, energetic guy who loves the game and I think he'll do really, really well there."

On StarNet: Watch video highlights of the UA basketball news conference at: azstarnet.com/online/video

Up next

• Who: Northern Arizona (2-3) at No. 9 Arizona (3-0)

• When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

• TV: Pac-12 Network

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)

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