BERKELEY, Calif. — Without their usual abundance of elite-level scorers, defenders and rebounders, maybe it all comes down to turnovers for the Arizona Wildcats this season.
At least that’s what some evidence suggested over during the Wildcats’ sweep through the Bay Area over the past week.
At Stanford on Wednesday, the Wildcats allowed the Cardinal to shoot 54 percent and outrebound them 54-51, yet took 13 more shots in part because they had only 10 turnovers. Every possession was critical, and the Wildcats won by two of them, 75-70.
On Saturday at Cal, the UA turned the ball over seven times in eight minutes of the first half, during which the worst team in the Pac-12 crept within one point.
Then Arizona came out in the second half, didn’t turn the ball over for the first eight minutes after halftime and grew a 12-point halftime lead into a blowout 87-65 win. The Wildcats finished with 12 turnovers, because they had just four in the second half.
“That’s a big deal for our team,” Miller said. “We have a chance to be a team that really does a great job of taking care of the ball. …. No coach wants his team to turn it over, but I think those possessions are even more important for us because we’re not a great rebounding team. So we’re trying to get as many shots at the basket as we can get.”
The ball-handling issue is so acute to Miller that he slightly overestimated how many the Wildcats gave up over the two Bay Area games.
“I think we had a total of 24 turnovers on this trip and, man, I’d love that number to be 20 or 18,” Miller said. “Because when we get shots at the basket and really take care of the ball, that’s when this year’s team is at our very best.”
The Wildcats were at their best early in the second half against Cal, outscoring the Bears by nine points over the first six minutes of the half, and Miller attributed a lot of that to the pace that point guard Justin Coleman set.
Arizona hit its first eight shots over those six minutes, and Coleman assisted three of them. He also converted a 3-point play during that stretch and, after Brandon Williams missed a layup with 13:38 left, hit a 3-pointer to give the UA a 64-42 lead with 12:46 remaining.
“Justin Coleman was terrific the whole game, and especially in the second half,” Miller said. “He had a couple of turnovers late but he really set the tone for the first six, eight, 10 minutes of the second half. He took the game into his hands and played on both ends. He got his teammates shots, got himself shots and that’s what you look for a senior point guard.”
Except for the tape over his previously dislocated left shoulder, it was difficult to tell that Coleman was playing through some soreness.
Having been swatted at full speed by Stanford 7-footer Josh Sharma on Wednesday, Coleman took the Wildcats’ practice off Thursday, returned to the court Friday and logged 32 minutes on Saturday, with 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting, five assists and a steal with three turnovers.
“He’s sore but he’s a tough kid,” Miller said after the game. “I don’t think he felt anything here tonight.”
Because Coleman soaked up all but eight minutes, that helped minimize UA’s turnovers. While Williams was particularly effective off the ball, scoring 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting at Cal, he struggled when shifting over to point guard while Coleman rested.
Williams had four turnovers during the UA’s eight-minute spell without a field goal in the first half. While Coleman had one of his own, Williams had his third and fourth within 70 seconds after replacing Coleman a second time. Both of those turnovers led to 3-point attempts by Connor Vanover, the second of which went in, cutting UA’s lead to 18-15.
A subsequent passing turnover from Ryan Luther led to a fast-break shot by Justice Sueing, and the Cats led by just a point.
Miller said some of the turnovers could be blamed on Cal’s zone defense and the athletes that swarmed within it, but not all of them.
“There just some turnovers that were self-inflicted, I think,” Miller said. “I think Brandon Williams had a very, very good game but he had four turnovers in the first half. We’re asking him to do a lot playing the one and the two. But when he goes to the one, valuing that ball is so important.”
Also helping the Wildcats’ turnovers: That center Chase Jeter didn’t have any for the third time in the past four games while continuing his offensive efficiency.
Now shooting 64.3 percent from the field, Jeter was impactful nearly every time he touched the ball. He didn’t miss any of his four field goals in the second half while shooting 8 for 11 overall from the field, while he was also 7 for 8 from the free-throw line and collected nine rebounds.
Jeter finished by once again resetting his career-high in scoring, with 23 points.
“I thought Chase had an outstanding game,” Miller said. “Offensively he’s really finding a rhythm scoring (with his) left hand, right hand. He’s more comfortable further away from the basket than maybe he would have been at the beginning of our season, which makes sense, because he doesn’t have a ton of game experience.
“And as he keeps practicing and learning, he’s such a hard worker that you can see his improvement almost right in front of you.”
After the game, analyst Bill Walton put Jeter’s performance in words as only Walton can toward the end of the Pac-12 Networks’ postgame interview .
“You’re really good, and you’re really tall, and you’re very cool,” Walton said with a wide grin. “Your parents should be really proud.”