Arizona basketball sweep delivers both good and bad for Wildcats
The No. 12 Arizona men’s basketball team swept the Washington schools in McKale Center this weekend, and on paper, the wins seem nearly identical.
The UA beat the Huskies by 18 and the Cougars by 17. The Wildcats outscored their opponents in each half, won both rebounding margins by seven or more, shot better than 47 percent from the floor and had more assists than turnovers.
Mission accomplished, right?
It may have been for the outside observer, but not head coach Sean Miller.
Tyler Besh / Arizona Daily Wildcat
The difference in effort between Wednesday’s 70-52 win against UW and Saturday’s 73-56 victory over WSU was night and day. It’d be generous to say the coach was fuming after the Wazzu game.
“I’m really excited that we’re 23-4 and I could have come in here and given you all the ‘Hey, we’re great’ or ‘We really played some good basketball,’” Miller said in Saturday’s postgame press conference. “But I think with what we’re trying to accomplish moving forward, [it has] nothing to do with 27 games. I’m talking about game 28 and beyond. We’re in a real quandary. We do not play hard on defense.”
The team’s lack of defensive effort, specifically in the second half, had been on the top of the list for Miller and senior Solomon Hill before the Washington game. After the Wildcats put on one of their best displays in weeks, on national television no less, the team was thrilled.
Hill said it was fun playing out on the court and Miller commended the Wildcats’ effort, saying he was proud of how hard they played. What a difference three days can make.
Miller was as visibly upset after the WSU game as he’s been the entire season, ditching his usually calm demeanor to call out his team for turning the switch on and off in the second half.
It seems weird considering Arizona only trailed 2-0 and had a double-digit lead for nearly all of the final 30 minutes of the game. Sure, WSU mounted a comeback, but that’s just a natural flow of the game. I’m sure it wasn’t all because of effort.
“It’s all effort,” Miller said. “One hundred percent. Caring, playing as hard as you possibly can … Making really quality, hard plays on the ball like [Wednesday], where a teammate helps a teammate block a shot, and you see us out there on that 2-on-1 or that transition and the crowd erupts.”
Miller was describing the play where Angelo Chol blocked a break-away by the Huskies, only to immediately turn the ball over and give them another easy look at the basket. But Hill, just like Chol, never gave up on the play and swatted the follow-up attempt as well.
“You’re not going to really see that in [Saturday’s] game because we were late and we’re gonna foul,” Miller said.
In the Wildcats’ previous five games before the Washington schools, the split between the first half and second half defense was astounding. Miller was right to be upset. Opponents were shooting 10 percent better (40.2 to 50.4 percent), taking nearly three times as many free throws and scoring 12.2 more points in the second half compared to the first.
The issue seemed to improve on Wednesday, when Arizona held Washington to 26.5 percent shooting and 27 points in the second half. But not so fast.
Wazzu made 52.2 percent of its shots in the final 20 minutes and had 17 free throw attempts. All of that helped the Cougars cut a 22-point disadvantage in half before senior Kevin Parrom helped right the ship with a trio of three-pointers.
But even the Wildcats’ savior saw the writing on the wall, and said he felt as though it was the veteran’s responsibility to keep up the intensity even with a big lead.
“That’s where I come into play, that’s where Solomon [Hill] comes into play,” Parrom said. “That’s where [senior point guard] Mark [Lyons] and [sophomore guard] Nick [Johnson] come into play. We have to keep playing even though we have a big lead. I think … guys took their foot off the pedal. We just have to keep playing no matter what the score is.”
The Wildcats are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12 standings and are ranked in the top-15. But, that’s not enough for Miller, who has higher aspirations for his team than a nice finish to the season.
“The one thing that I know is that we’re not the most talented and prolific offensive team. So when we don’t play over-the-top hard and together, it really shows up. There may be some more skilled teams that are out there that they’re so good shooting that once in a while when they’re defense isn’t locked in, they’re still fine. We’re not that team.”
Arizona’s recent performances equal a first-round exit in the eyes of Miller, not a team capable of cutting down the nets in Atlanta.
He may be right.