When his team rebounded from three straight losses in the Bahamas by pounding Long Beach State by 35 points on Wednesday night, Arizona coach Sean Miller had no intention of allowing his team to feel satisfied with its progress.
Miller offered a scathing assessment of the Wildcats during a 25-minute postgame news conference, questioning everything from his team’s effort, to its desire, to its ability.
The headline worthy snippet that has earned Miller ridicule on social media came when he described Arizona as “not that talented.” Taken out of context, it’s a bizarre comment from a coach who returns two wings with NBA aspirations and welcomes the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class, a five-member group highlighted by potential top-five draft pick DeAndre Ayton.
Listen to Miller’s full postgame comments, however, and his purpose in questioning his team becomes clearer. This wasn’t a coach trying to excuse his team’s poor start by falsely bemoaning the lack of talent on his roster. This was Miller’s way of motivating his players through the media, of reminding the Wildcats that they might be able to coast against the Long Beach States of the world but against the better teams on their schedule they can’t get by on talent alone.
“We have a lot of younger players that probably don’t have enough evidence yet to understand how hard it is to win in college basketball, how hard you have to play and we have a couple veterans that are not showing the way,” Miller said. “That combination is who we are right now.
“We have talent. We’re just not overwhelming. When I was watching the Bahamas games, we can only watch the TV copy and I kept seeing the No. 3 recruiting class in the country pop up on the screen like 75 times. I find myself saying, ‘Well, where did you go? Where did you go?’ The race starts all over again in college. Just because you were ranked such and such in 11th grade, no one cares.
“I’ve been here for nine Red-Blue games. Every Red-Blue game that I’ve been here, I answer the same questions after the game. How are you going to keep everyone happy and is this one of the most talented teams that you’ve had? Then usually about three or four weeks later, reality strikes. I think the reality for us is we’re not that talented. We have to play really, really, really hard. We have one guy who not a lot of people have seen a guy like that walk through the door, but DeAndre is a freshman and where he has the most to learn as do all of our freshmen is on the defensive side. While we’re working on that, we need a couple of our veterans, guys who have been here and done it before, to really embody the qualities of playing hard and playing together.”
Miller’s comments came less than a week after an Arizona team ranked No. 2 in the country before the season was depantsed during the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Wildcats lost all three games they played in the Bahamas, suffering narrow losses against solid-but-not-spectacular N.C. State and SMU in their opening two games before getting clobbered by Purdue by 25 in their finale.
While poor outside shooting undeniably contributed to those losses, there’s no question that inadequate defense was the primary culprit. N.C. State shredded Arizona for 90 points and 1.23 points per possession. SMU made up for a modest shooting night by beating the Wildcats up on the offensive boards and turning those rebounds into second-chance points.
Worst of all was the Purdue game, as evidenced by the Boilermakers’ 57.1 percent shooting from the field and 11-for-22 shooting from behind the arc and 1.29 points scored per possession. Plagued by poor communication, slow rotations and inconsistent effort, Arizona utterly failed to execute its game plan of chasing Purdue’s array of shooters over the top of screens, running them off the arc and forcing them to make plays off the dribble.
The film from those three games highlighted some glaring defensive issues that Arizona must address.
One problem is that the pairing of Ayton and skilled 7-footer Dusan Ristic in the frontcourt leaves Arizona with two big men uncomfortable defending in space. Ristic isn’t much of a rim protector but he’s even more of a liability trying to guard a smaller, quicker players off the bounce. Ayton is still more comfortable altering shots in the paint than he is playing ball-screen defense or defending out to the perimeter.
Another problem is that Arizona lacks a Kadeem Allen or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, both defense-first perimeter stoppers who could be counted on to hold an opponent’s best scorer in check. Freshman Emmanuel Akot has the tools to eventually take on that role, but the 6-7 wing is nowhere near ready yet and has seen his playing time dwindle. Sophomore Rawle Alkins is a high-energy player and a capable defender, but an offseason foot injury is likely to sideline him a couple more weeks.
Beyond that, the options are bleak. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is an undersized point guard who makes up for his defensive deficiencies with his outside shooting, dribble penetration and court vision. Allonzo Trier is a high-scoring wing who has the potential to be a standout defender but has always prided himself more on getting buckets than stops. And freshman Brandon Randolph is a shot maker whose defense is far behind his offense.
While Arizona’s personnel may prevent it from being an elite defensive team all season, the Wildcats can mask some of their issues with superior effort, communication and attention to detail. That was the message that Miller was trying to send during his press conference. It was a public plea to his veterans to set the tone in hopes that it trickles down to his five freshman.
“A big part of our failure was inconsistent effort on defense, and we’re trying to fix that,” Miller said.
“I think for us it starts with consistent 40-minute, two-hour effort. Once that’s established, I think some of the other things that our team will be good at will really start to shine and we’ll have a lot of success.”
The timing of Miller’s message was also no accident. Arizona’s schedule is about to stiffen. Over the next two weeks, Arizona will play a pair of tricky road games at UNLV and New Mexico, host much-improved Alabama and take on ninth-ranked Texas A&M in Phoenix in what should be a glamour matchup.
Maybe the specter of the FBI investigation has been a distraction that has taken away from Arizona’s early season focus. Maybe the absence of assistant coach Book Richardson has irreparably altered the Wildcats’ team chemistry by removing the conduit between Miller and the players. Maybe the Wildcats need Alkins’ presence to flourish at either end of the floor.
But if Arizona is going to prevent a nightmare week in the Bahamas from snowballing into a full-fledged early season meltdown, it’s going to start on defense.
The Wildcats take Miller’s tough-love message to heart.
Sean Miller’s full press conference from after Wednesday night’s game:
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