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Arizona basketball: Wildcats struggle against zone defense, Sean Miller attributes it to inexperience

Miller says Arizona works on attacking a zone defense everyday in practice

NCAA Basketball: Northern Colorado at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats were 30-point favorites against Northern Colorado on Monday, but trailed the Bears 31-30 at halftime.

Northern Colorado was rated as one of the worst defensive teams in the country heading into the game, but the Bears went to a 2-3 zone, and the heavily-favored Wildcats had no answer.

Arizona shot just 36.1 percent in the first half.

“They put a zone defense up and it’s the first time this year’s team has really gone against a zone and that first time you really rely on your older guys and unfortunately for us, we have a ton of new faces so we had a deer in the headlights look,” Sean Miller said.

Arizona started two freshmen in Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Alkins, plus another — Kobi Simmons — came off the bench. Markkanen had nine points in the first half, but Alkins and Simmons were 1 for 5 from the field.

“It’s the first time they ever played against a college zone and we were down at half, and didn’t look good, so we had to dig deep,” Miller said.

Miller felt his team was too content settling for outside shots. Arizona was 3-10 from behind the arc in the first 20 minutes, and 1-6 from that range in the final 20 minutes.

“The thing about zone defense is you don’t have to audition your 3-point shooting skills just because a team’s playing zone,” Miller said. “Dribble penetration, being able to get the ball inside like we did in the second half, a lot of our baskets in the second half were drives and post-ups, and it was the same zone in the second half as we saw in the first half.

“I think we took ten 3s in the first half, we took six in the second, so learning when to go, when not to go, being able to get the ball in the middle, all of that is really important.”

As Miller alluded to, the Wildcats fared much better against Northern Colorado’s zone in the second half. They shot 52.1 percent and got to the free throw line 17 times.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who posted all 15 of his points and six of his 11 assists in the second half, was the catalyst, penetrating the vulnerable spots in the zone and getting the ball into the paint in what was the junior’s “best game at Arizona.”

Jackson-Cartwright also thought the team’s perimeter ball movement was crisper.

“Our first half we were a little bit more unsettled, but I liked our execution against their zone in the second half and I thought even the shots we missed were better shots,” Miller said after the 71-55 victory. “In the first half, it was kind of like you were hoping that we would just make a 3.”

Markkanen, who also posted a double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds, played a career-high 38 minutes.

Miller said Markkanen’s ability to hit shots along with Arizona’s other front court players not having their best games forced the Wildcats to keep the 7-footer in the game.

“He was exhausted, but against a zone and the way their team plays offense, he was the perfect guy for us to keep in and no question we went with him,” Miller said. “And with your best players, sometimes you have to allow them to play through fatigue and we don’t want to play anybody on our team 38 minutes a game, but there are those games where they’re going to be called on to play more.”

While Markkanen and the Wildcats figured out Northern Colorado’s zone in the second half, there is plenty of room for improvement moving forward. Miller said his team works on attacking a zone defense everyday in practice and will continue to do so.

But practice only helps so much.

“Until you really see your group out there (in games), every once in a while, what you see you don’t like and you have to make adjustments,” Miller said, “so this game will allow that to happen for sure.”

And surely there will be more in-game opportunities to learn from in the near future.

“We expect teams to play zone,” Jackson-Cartwright said, “but we have to make adjustments, and expect anything that any team does and just be prepared as best as we can.”

Up next

No. 8 Arizona (4-0) is set to face Santa Clara (3-2) on Thursday in Las Vegas as part of the Las Vegas Invitational.

Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m. MST and the game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire