In the Arizona Wildcats' Thursday night win against the Washington Huskies, we saw Arizona utilize something that has rarely, if ever, been used during Sean Miller's tenure: a zone defense.
The Wildcats had been struggling to get stops -- allowing Washington to shoot 51.5% from the field in the first half -- and Miller was looking for anyway to find a solution.
Arizona's defensive difficulties have been a reoccurring theme this season. In the loss to the USC Trojans, the Trojans had a blistering 64.3 field-goal percentage in the first half. The UCLA Bruins shot over 50% in both halves when they knocked off the Wildcats.
"Our problem this year has been as much about defending as anything," Sean Miller said.
It's been unfamiliar to Arizona basketball recently. In the past couple seasons, Miller has had elite perimeters defenders like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Aaron Gordon, and Stanley Johnson to turn to, but the current team has no such player.
It was hoped that one of Ray Smith, Mark Tollefsen, Elliott Pitts, or Kadeem Allen, would take the torch from those listed above, but it simply didn't happen. Smith tore his ACL before the season even started, Pitts has been out indefinitely for "personal reasons", and Tollefsen has been decent on that end, but not much more than that.
Allen has flashed potential as a potential lockdown defender, using his 6'8" wingspan to crowd ball handlers and disrupt passing lanes, but it's been touch and go.
Simply, the Wildcats' personnel doesn't give them the ability to guard their opponents straight up as well as it once did. Conference opponents are shooting 45.2% against the 'Cats this season, last season they were at 39%.
Sean Miller has a strict man-to-man defensive philosophy, but he wasn't going to sit on his hands and watch his defense continually get picked apart. Something had to be done.
"It’s a good change of scenery [against] other teams," Parker Jackson-Cartwright said about the team's zone defense.
It's a complete 180 from what the Wildcats normally run, but the results cannot be ignored. The Huskies shot over 50% in the first half, but then were held to a 30.3 field goal percentage in the second half after the 'Cats showed some zone.
"I thought it worked out well for us," forward Ryan Anderson said after the win versus Washington. "I thought we put it in at the right moments, and it kind of changed the game for us in the second half."
And it's not a gimmick, Miller believes the team will have to rely on it moving forward.
"I don’t think we have a choice," Miller said. "We have to be able to show that. We have to mix it in."
The scheme is different, but Miller still expects his team to play with the same tenacity in zone as they do in man-to-man.
"We try to pressure the ball, try to force turnovers," Anderson said. "He just told us to do the same thing in the zone."
But at the same time, the zone can also allow players to conserve energy on the defensive end, something that's vital with the team working with a short bench due to Allonzo Trier and Elliott Pitts currently being sidelined.
"We have to use it. We don’t have enough depth," Miller said. "At times we want to put a different group on the court, and illustrate the good characteristics of that group out there."
It's not exactly clear when or how often the zone will be used, or if the success the team has had with it will be sustainable, but you have to credit Miller for departing from his usual philosophy in order to try to find a solution to the team's problems.
"I don’t question anything Coach Miller does," Anderson said. "He’s one of the best coaches in the game and this week we worked on it a little bit and he warned us he would put it in the game."