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Arizona basketball: Young Wildcats still finding their way defensively

The team’s newcomers have the tools to be dominant defenders, but they still have a lot to learn before they get there.

Sacred Heart v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Two games ago, Kobi Simmons was involved in a play that he might remember for a long time — but for all the wrong reasons.

In the first half against Cal State Bakersfield, the Arizona guard was lax getting back on defense, and 5-foot-10 Dedrick Basile took advantage.

With a clear path to the hoop, the Cal State Bakersfield guard bolted to basket and elevated in the air, slamming the ball through the hoop over Simmons, whose attempt at a chase-down block was too late.

“Get the (expletive) outta here!” Basile barked in Simmons’ direction after throwing it down and drawing the foul on the 6-foot-5 guard.

Simmons, usually the one dunking on others with his 45-inch vertical, was the victim of a SportsCenter highlight this time around.

Ultimately, it was one play and Basile’s viral moment only counted as two points in CSUB’s 78-66 loss to Arizona, but it a was a microcosm of a recurring problem for this Wildcat team — their transition defense, or lack thereof.

Because a game later, it wasn’t much better.

“I was a little disappointed in our transition defense,” Sean Miller said after the Sacred Heart game, three days after Basile put Simmons on a poster. “We had a hard time getting back early.”

Per, opponents this season have an effective field goal percentage — an advanced stat which takes into account the extra value of a made 3-pointer — of 78.6 against the Wildcats in transition after a steal. For reference, that number was 59.6 last season and 55.9 the season before that.

With Allonzo Trier sidelined and Kadeem Allen (knee injury) being in and out of the lineup, Arizona has started two freshmen on the wing at times in Simmons and Rawle Alkins, not to mention that Lauri Markkanen, another freshman, is starting at power forward.

That type of inexperience, Miller says, is the source of Arizona’s poor transition defense.

“Part of what we’re working through right now is we have a lot of young guys, a lot of inexperience, and although they’re talented basketball players and getting better, there’s certain things that the college game represents that they’ve never seen before,” he said.

One of those things is a “fast, organized push” from opposing offenses.

“That’s foreign to them as young players that are playing college for the first time,” Miller said after the win vs. Sacred Heart. “The good news about a game like tonight is every time we go out there, we get a little bit better, we learn things.”

Freshmen finding their way

Aside from Michigan State — and even they only beat Florida Gulf Coast by one point on Sunday — Arizona has faced a weak level of competition so far this season.

As Miller put it, teams like Cal Bakersfield and Sacred Heart have one “very good” player, but that won’t be the case when Arizona gets into the more difficult stretch of its schedule.

“Let’s face it, here — moving down the schedule we’re gonna have quite a few teams that are going to have multiple very good players and there’s nowhere to hide anybody,” Miller said. “So you’re going to have defend on that given night.”

The team’s freshmen, in particular, will have to pay more attention to detail, like knowing the ins and outs of the teams they’re facing and the players they’re guarding.

Miller used Allonzo Trier from a season ago as an example — the then-freshman struggled as a defender at the beginning of the year, but was noticeably improved by the time Pac-12 play began.

“Allonzo learned that last year...I think these guys like Kobi and Rawle or Lauri — not getting beat off the dribble, knowing the scouting report — these are things in the month of November that you always hope that your team can learn and I think tonight was an example of us learning that,” Miller said after the win versus Sacred Heart in which Arizona held the Pioneers to a 37.9 field goal percentage.

Miller has referred to November as a “month of learning” in college basketball and the good news for Arizona’s newcomers is they’ve had plenty of opportunities to be students of the game.

And unlike last year, Arizona’s defensive issues are fixable this season.

The Wildcats now have the athleticism on the perimeter to be a dominant defensive unit. Simmons and Alkins (plus Kadeem Allen) are equipped with the needed attributes to lock down the conference’s best perimeter scorers.

But the mental part of the game matters, too, and getting up to speed in that regard is still a work in progress for the young Wildcats.

“Both are really talented players, they’ve done a great job for us early on, they’re learning,” Miller said of Simmons and Alkins. “There’s a lot of things, especially on defense, that we need them to improve. But in fairness to them, they’re out there the entire game. We’re asking them to guard the other team’s best players right now, and that’s kind of the gift our schedule and some of the things we’re going through — we’re allowing them to learn a lot.”

Ironically, Arizona is in a scenario where its short bench and soft schedule — two things usually seen in a negative light — are working in its favor.

“We’re allowing (our young players) to get great experience,” Miller said, “and I think we’ll benefit as the season progresses.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire