With his Wildcats coming off what he called a “historically abysmal offensive performance,” Arizona coach Sean Miller says he’s thinking about a lineup change.
It isn’t hard to figure out what he means. While the Wildcats collectively shot their McKale-record low 25.4% in a 65-52 loss against UCLA, nobody had a rougher night — or has had a rougher two weeks — than senior guard Dylan Smith.
Smith was 0 for 7 against the Bruins and has missed his last 17 3-point attempts, since he hit his first one on Jan. 30 at Washington. While Miller said Saturday he has stuck with Smith because he needs his length and defense on the wing, the coach appears to be at a point where he’s considering starting Jemarl Baker or possibly even Max Hazzard instead — which might be a workable matchup against a Cal team that starts three guards, none bigger than the 6-4 Matt Bradley.
“We could change the lineup, I mean, we’re at that point, yeah,” Miller said Tuesday, during his weekly news conference. “Sometimes it relaxes guys when they don’t have the pressure of starting. Sometimes you just change it up, mix it up, it helps everybody.”
Miller said he would decide for sure at some point before Thursday’s game, saying the Wildcats’ “weren’t there yet,” but also indicated Smith would play a similar role regardless.
“Dylan is going to play. The guys who haven’t started are going to play,” Miller said. “And we just need quality play. That’s what we need. Our team has to play well.”
More than anything, at this point, the Wildcats may just need to shoot better.
Arizona has had several puzzling scoreless spells of 5-8 minutes at a time in recent weeks. They followed a 6-for-11 mark from 3 in the first half against UCLA with an 0-for-12 disaster in the second. In their near-meltdown against USC two days earlier, they made 1 of 8 3-pointers in the second half, and the previous week, shot less than 40% each in wins at Washington and Washington State.
During a weekly news conference Tuesday in which he spoke for 29 minutes to answer just 10 questions, Miller expounded often on how the shooting woes are affecting his team.
1. They’re forcing the Wildcats to practice like it’s summertime.
In the preseason, the Wildcats often work out in small groups to sharpen up the individual skills they will need at their positions when the season rolls around. Full-team drills, or those against a scout team that mimics the upcoming opponents, are more common in-season.
But Miller said the Wildcats’ shooting slump prompted him to break them apart this week in groups of four in an attempt to find confidence.
“At this time of year, it’s not easy to do,” Miller said. “Not for a grueling workout but just shooting in groups of four. Just kind of carve out some time for 40 minutes, to allow them to watch the ball go in the basket and shoot quality shots and just get their rhythm back.
“It’s amazing sometimes when you mix that in how a guy’s confidence can return because we have a couple guys have certainly gone through that confidence bug. Usually you work your way out of it.”
2. Nico Mannion’s stats drop.
Mannion has posted zero assists in the UA’s past two losses, at ASU and to UCLA, and totaled just 16 assists with 14 turnovers over his past five games. He’s also shot just 26.3% over his past three games.
But his assist numbers also scream for context.
“I mean, we had two horrific shooting performances,” Miller said, referring to the UCLA game and UA’s 40.4% shooting at ASU.
Miller said one of the “unique” things about the Wildcats is how the game doesn’t always flow consistently for them. Against UCLA, the Wildcats were 6 for 11 from 3 in the first half but 0 for 12 in the second. At ASU, they were 6 of 12 from 3 in the first half but 0 for 8 in the second.
“So it’s hard to get assists when the guys that you’re passing the ball to ... the ball’s not going in,” Miller said. “But no doubt we’re going to be a better team when Nico does both, and when our entire team is more efficient.”
3. Their defense suffers.
Three days after the UCLA loss, Miller was still grumbling over the fact that the UA hit just 3 of 19 two-pointers in the first half against the Bruins.
“If you’re 3 for 19 from 2, you’re probably playing against a group of guys who play above the rim, block shots and are really long,” Miller said, then paused for effect and added: “They had one block in 40 minutes.”
Miller said his players were frustrated, too. So much so that it affected the other end of the court — which, in turn, made things even worse for the offense.
“Trust me when I tell you our offense had a lot to do with our defense and how it felt,” Miller said. “We reached in at the end of the (shot) clock, we gave up key second shots, especially in the second half.
“And when you don’t get defensive stops, you can’t get out and run. When you can’t get out and run and you’re us, that kind of takes away something you’re good at. That doesn’t mean you can’t win, but you’re going to win in a different way.”
Miller went on to discuss the intricacies of how, in a tight game, the knowledge of time/score situations becomes even that much more critical, and how exactly the Wildcats nearly let their 20-point lead against USC last Thursday slip away.
“For us, that’s who we are,” Miller said. “And we’re about ready to go on the road, play against two different styles (at deliberate-playing Cal and uptempo-minded Stanford), and we have to be good.
“When our team plays well, we can beat anybody. When our team is mediocre or we’re not locked in, we’re very vulnerable. And I think the next eight games will be the same for us.”
4. Good ballhandling is wasted.
Baker is up to an astounding 143 minutes without a single turnover, and his capable ballhandling as a combo guard is a big reason why the Wildcats had just 15 turnovers total against USC and UCLA.
But even though the Wildcats had nine fewer turnovers against UCLA, scoring 18 points on the Bruins’ 18 turnovers, it wasn’t enough.
“That’s kind of a head-scratcher,” Miller said. “But our shooting percentage was so abysmal we couldn’t take advantage of that.”
As it turned out, UCLA (51.1%) more than doubled UA’s 24.5% shooting mark, making eight more field goals overall than the Wildcats.
5. Coaches need to be psychologists.
More than once Tuesday, Miller put part of the blame on himself and his staff for needing to work better with their players on shooting, to iron out some inconsistencies.
“Some of it is shot selection, some of it is who’s taking the shot, some of it is confidence and you know what? Some of it is probably just execution,” Miller said. “But there’s always those shots where you say, I can’t get a better one than that and it didn’t go in.”
Exhibit A might be what to do with Smith, especially when those shots just don’t go in.
Smith is 4 for 27 overall in his past four games. But just last month he went 9 for 20 combined in UA’s wins over Utah and Colorado and, over Thanksgiving weekend, he made the Wooden Legacy all-tournament team by shooting 61.9% from the field and averaged 15.3 points.
Where is that guy? Can the UA coaches find him?
“We’re really working with Dylan to shoot the ball,” Miller said. “He’s obviously in a tough stretch but I go back to the Colorado, Utah homestand when he played really well. Boy, we were a lot better team. Arizona State at home, back to the Wooden Classic and some of our nonconference games.
“With Dylan I think the hard part is when he’s been off, he’s really been off, and he’s in a tough slump. But we win as a team and lose as team; it doesn’t fall on Dylan not making shots. We have a number of guys who could play better. There’s a number of things we’re trying to do coachingwise to be better. So we have to go on this trip and be the best that we can be.”
Contact Bruce Pascoe at 573-4146 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @brucepascoe.
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