The box scores came off the printers a few minutes after Arizona beat Long Beach State 91-56, and for the Wildcats, they looked pretty good.
Arizona held the 49ers to 41.2 percent shooting, 30 percent 3-point shooting and prompted 19 turnovers that led to 27 UA points. Offensively, the Wildcats shot 60 percent overall and made 12 of 22 3-pointers.
You’d think those were the kind of numbers that indicate a little healing after an embarrassing stay in the Bahamas last week, right?
UA coach Sean Miller took an unusually long 30-minute gap after those box scores were distributed to appear in the media interview room. Then he spent the next 24 minutes telling everyone that, no, all was not right.
The Wildcats didn’t play consistently hard, he said. They didn’t play together, he said. They have freshmen who don’t know what it takes and older players who have yet to show them, he said.
“I think our effort was terrible,” Miller said.
His team beat a respectable mid-major team by 35 points.
“We’re a lifeless group a lot of times,” Miller said, adding later: “I don’t want people to come to the games, sit down with your popcorn, and wonder `Is he trying?’ That’s not fair.”
Miller painted a broad picture of what went wrong, much as he did in the Bahamas last week, when Arizona lost to North Carolina State, SMU and Purdue to drop clear out of The Associated Press Top 25 poll from the No. 2 spot.
Even though Miller said the Wildcats’ post-Bahamas practices have gone well, that drop in the polls still may have yet to sink in.
“Like I told our guys, (ESPN) SportsCenter highlights, they don’t show those highlights when you’re not ranked,” Miller said. “You know, it’s like `I’m gonna go home and watch my highlights.’
“There are no highlights. You lost three in a row. You’re over there.”
But there’s good news for Miller in that sort of slip below the national radar. He’s trying to take advantage of it now.
“The more you’re over here (unranked), the healthier I think it is to get their attention. The healthier it is to get a great day of practice. Because right now, where we’re at, there is no cutting corners. It’s we have to do things right every day. We have to coach these guys hard. We need leadership to develop. We need toughness to develop. And we have to do a great job, man, of doing all of the little things, the effort things.”
While Miller didn’t point to many specifics, a few things were clear. After leading 42-24 at halftime, the Wildcats lagged defensively. Long Beach State outscored UA 11-10 over the first four minutes of the second half but still fell behind 60-39 with 11:58 left – because the Wildcats had made 8 of 10 field goals to that point, scoring the last bucket on a layup by Allonzo Trier that resulted from a steal by Alex Barcello.
Then, while the Wildcats generally didn’t struggle through the second half, they committed 10 turnovers after halftime.
“First four minutes of the second half, we didn’t try,” Miller said. “We don’t have room for error. When you do that, you’ll do it again, and when you do it on the road again against a better team, they’re gonna go on a big run and that big run inevitably will do you in.
“For us, it starts with (a) consistent 40 minutes. … And once that’s established, I think some of the other things that we will be good at will really start to shine.”
Miller’s extended concerns suggested two possibilities. One, that he’s worried how the Wildcats will play in their next three games away from McKale Center, and, two, that maybe he’s using the old psychological ploy that you get your guys’ attention and really dig in when things are good – not necessarily lay into them when they’re struggling and confidence is down.
But Miller said he doesn’t play that game.
“Players only understand the truth,” he said. “If you say, `That’s OK, fellas,’ they know you don’t mean it. We judge ourselves by the standards of our program. Everybody knows what those standards are. Everybody knows what we’re trying to accomplish, including the players.”
That would include, mostly, getting better even with road games ahead at UNLV on Saturday and at New Mexico on Dec. 16, with a semi-neutral game in between against Texas A&M next Tuesday in Phoenix.
The two players UA brought in to be interviewed after the game had mostly soft, short words about that goal.
“It’s been intense,” Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “We just try to get better each day.”
Jackson-Cartwright did his part by finishing the game with 12 points, five assists, three steals and only one turnover while Deandre Ayton nearly posted a sixth double-double when he had 13 points and nine rebounds in just 25 minutes.
Trier, meanwhile, led the Wildcats in scoring with 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting.
The three of them combined to pretty much put the game away in the middle of the second half, when UA went on a 9-0 run to take a 76-43 lead with 7:21 left. Arizona finished the run with a textbook transition play, with Ayton pulling down a defensive rebound, passing to Jackson-Cartwright, who fired it to Trier for an easy layup.
“Just try to keep improving as a basketball team and looking ahead,” Trier said.
If those words were few, Miller’s more than made up for it. The results of that approach should be more apparent Saturday when Arizona (4-3) will play at UNLV (6-1) during the Wildcats’ first true road game of the season.