While playing for the Blackhawk Bantams in fourth grade, Sean Miller faced a tandem-and-three defense.
He hasn’t seen it pretty much since then.
Until Wednesday, when New Mexico State shoveled out a host of gimmick defenses in an effort to slow Arizona down.
“We played a team called the Scarlet Knights, and that’s what they played,” Miller said. “A guy at the nail (center of free throw line), and a guy at the hoop, and then three guys playing man-to-man. You (can) see a lot of college games but I don’t know if you’ll see that defense.”
“But it’s effective because they have a 7-5 guy (Sim Bhullar) in there. It just feels different. But once you get the hang of it… there’s a reason no one plays that defense. I thought we broke them down and had some great shots at the baskets, had some real good some great passes.”
Miller rattled on about the four other defenses that the Aggies tried to use, too: A 1-3-1 zone, 2-3 zone, 1-2-2 three-quarter-court press, and a man-to-man.
“It was a great experience, almost like practice,” Miller said. “You get your ability to teach and coach, where guys understand that the next time we see this this is what we will do.
“At the end of the day I liked our numbers. If we would have taken care of the ball better (UA had 13 turnovers), we’d score more points and that remains a concern. Ten or fewer in a game like this is reasonable. We self-destruct sometimes in transition, and instead of scoring in the 80s we were stuck in the 70s, but we’ll work on that.”
Miller said the changing defenses were a particularly good opportunity for T.J. McConnell, who had six assists and two turnovers while adjusting much of the game.
“T.J. has to work at times; he gets frustrated with himself and as a point guard when he becomes frustrated with himself, he quits leading the team,” Miller said. “Tonight was a huge opportunity for our point guard to recognize defenses and settle his teammates.
“I talked to him a little bit and he was caught up in his own world. He can’t do that. He has to always be about the other four players. He played a very good game. But to me he can be even better. Sometimes if he turns ball over or makes a play that doesn’t work out he kind of gets mad at himself and that affects the next play or the next segment of the game. So we’re working with him on that.”
The Aggies also threw out a common offensive trick that the Wildcats are already starting to see.
That is, no offense. At least early in the shot clock.
“They chose not to run offense for 20 to 25 seconds,” Miller said. “That feels funny and sometimes you can be frustrated. It can get you out of your disciplined style defensively.
“Maybe it happened a few times but we stayed with it. The reason you don’t want to do that is the more the game is a 5-on-5 game, the more easy baskets you don’t get, eventually it starts to favor the bigger, better team and I thought our size wore on them. When they tried to strike at the end of the game it wasn’t as easy.”
Not surprisingly, Miller praised Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who had another strong effort off the bench. In 23 minutes, Hollis-Jefferson had 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two blocks and one steal.
He is averaging 9.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in UA's past four games.
“Rondae was outstanding,” Miller said. “He made big plays, he did it in all facets of the game, offensive and defensive rebounding, great assists…. He did everything and it was great to see.”
UA has now started at 10-0 for two straight seasons. They were 14-0 before losing at Oregon last January.
“We’re very proud of it,” Miller said. “Some of the guys in the locker room have been on both teams and it’s a credit to them, working hard between games. It’s not easy to play UNLV in a whiteout and then move and get ready for another opponent in a few days and now we have to do it again.
“Now we have to get ready for a huge game on the road with Michigan.”
Oh yeah. Michigan.
Don’t let the Wolverines’ 6-3 record fool you, the way Miller explained it.
Their losses were at Iowa State, at Duke and to Charlotte, by two points, in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
“The one thing about Michigan, they’ve played a great schedule,” Miller said. “If you play at Duke, your chances aren’t very good. They played a very competitive schedule and because of that they’ve probably improved every week of the nonconference season. They were in the national championship game a year ago.”
Miller spoke highly of both Michigan coach John Beilein and Michigan’s recently renovated Crisler Center.
“Great conference. Fantastic homecourt. Reallty well-coached team and a team I know wants to defend its homecourt. What that means for us is we have to have a great game and be at our best.”
Here's the official box score.