Sean Miller


The holiday weekend ends early this evening for the Arizona Wildcats, and hangovers of any sort are not a good idea.

Not from eating or drinking. Not from lounging. And certainly not from being 11-2.

"The hardest practice of the season will be when we get back from Christmas break," forward Solomon Hill said of today's workout. "The more serious games will be when we come back from break, and I think Coach (Sean Miller) will establish that in practice."

The Wildcats will have four days to practice before playing at Oregon in their Pac-10 opener Thursday, and while the Ducks were picked to finish last in the conference, it's not just about them.

It's about continuing the process Miller started in April 2009, and about winning a few more games than the 10 the Wildcats did in conference play last season.

"We're not perfect," Miller said. "We're not going to win every game. But we're far improved from a year ago and that's always been our goal. I've not deviated from that. We now have to take advantage of it.

"Conference play is always a lot more difficult. There's a lot more familiarity. Road games are hostile, and we're playing against a lot of good teams and good coaches, so every night we're going to be challenged."

The Wildcats actually pulled out four conference road victories last season, while also playing Washington tough in Seattle, but they were swept by Oregon State and Washington State while losing to ASU at home.

Those home losses particularly stung Miller.

"One of the things I think we're going to do a better job of is playing at McKale," Miller said. "We have great fans and a terrific home court. A year ago, we dropped three games in conference play and we want to be better at that. We actually did a very good job on the road at times, and we want to continue that. But I think we've learned a lot about our teams. Hopefully, we can build on what we've done so far."

Here are three ways the Wildcats can do so:

Puncture the zone. This is a touchy subject for Miller, whose team actually shoots an above-average 38.3 percent from three-point territory.

Yet teams keep daring the Wildcats to shoot over it.

"Here's what I would say about us against the zone: we're 10-2," Miller said before the Wildcats beat Robert Morris last week. "Realistically, in about 12 of those games, we've probably seen more than 50 percent zone and it's not been one type. If you then say, 'OK, how do we shoot the three? How are we playing on offense?' I can make the argument that that's not our problem.

"I know that the one game with BYU sticks out (when the UA shot 27.3 percent from three-point territory) and maybe before that, we didn't shoot the ball well against Cal State-Fullerton, but sometimes you have to look beyond the percentages and ask yourself, 'Was it a good shot and did we execute, then just miss?' "

But there's more to just shooting over the zone to beat it. Arizona also has to effectively pass around it - ideally, with effective point-guard play and a forward, such as Hill, in the middle of the zone. That way, Hill can draw the defense in and, with his passing skills, get the ball back to a teammate in a good position to continue the play or score.

"Getting the ball in the middle allows me to attack the zone and dish off to Derrick (Williams) or MoMo (Jones)," Hill said. "If they play high (post), then you can go baseline or get it to somebody like (guard Kyle) Fogg."

Arizona's zone offense will be particularly tested Sunday at Oregon State, where the Beavers baffled the UA with 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone defenses last season.

The good news is that, although they struggled with BYU's zone, the Wildcats actually recovered to play well against a zone at North Carolina State.

"We attacked it pretty good," point guard Jordin Mayes said. "The floor was spread, so there were a lot of gaps. We had bounce passes and got to it to the middle. Made some easy passes."

Keep playing defense. When asked about the zone-offense troubles last week, Miller said he was actually more concerned about the defense.

The Wildcats have allowed opponents to shoot 41.5 percent overall, the seventh-best mark in the Pac-10, and they had four straight games of giving up 48 percent or better -against Oklahoma, Fullerton, BYU and NAU.

In their final two nonconference games, against N.C. State and Robert Morris, however, the Wildcats managed to keep opponents under 40 percent.

"I think too much has been made of how we attack a zone and not enough has been made about our defense," Miller said. "And the reality is that there's been some slippage on our defense, that we have to get back … .

"I don't want to say it's lack of effort, because I think a lot of times our guys try hard. It's execution. It's sometimes maybe effort. It's just guarding really good shooters is not easy. Sometimes it takes a team approach. We've had breakdowns, and the one thing about our team is we're not the biggest team in the world."

Hit the defensive boards. Maybe it seems paradoxical for a team with an average rebounding margin of plus-6.2, and one that has been out-rebounded only three times, but the Wildcats have had a puzzling lack of success on the defensive glass.

Arizona opponents have collected double-digit offensive rebounds in the past four games, with North Carolina State grabbing 23.

A lack of offensive rebounding was also a major reason Jesse Perry took Jamelle Horne's place in the starting lineup against Robert Morris, and why he may continue to hang onto the job. Horne has 11 offensive rebounds in 249 minutes; Perry has 22 in 193.

"Defensive rebounding, (like the kind) against N.C. State, that's the thing I worry more about moving into conference play," Miller said. "There will always be those games where you wish the ball went in more. But the thing we can control is the consistency of our defense. We've lost that a little bit.

"Other than our defensive rebounding, which is a big part of defense, there was a lot of good defense against N.C. State. That was good to see, and now we have to get back to rebounding."


• Who: Arizona at Oregon

• When: 8 p.m. Thursday

• TV: Channel 58 (also tape-delayed on FSAZ at 10:30 p.m.)

• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM