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Arizona basketball: Wildcats struggle with zone defense and defensive rebounding against Washington

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These aren’t new problems

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

All Sean Miller could do his shake his head as a pass along the wing from Parker Jackson-Cartwright was nearly intercepted by a Washington Husky.

The head-scratching play summed up what was a mind-boggling first half performance for the Arizona Wildcats’ offense.

Washington used a 2-3 zone from the opening tip and UA was baffled by it. The Wildcats started 6-16 from the field, missed their first eight 3-pointers, and had seven turnovers to one assist in the early going.

At the end of the first half, the Wildcats trailed by two (they trailed by as many as nine points at one time) and were shooting 42 percent with nine turnovers to just four assists.

“We were very tentative against the zone in the first half. I’m not really sure why, but we were,” Miller said. “And a lot of our nine turnovers at the half were because of our ineffectiveness against their zone.

“We played at UCLA 40 minutes and had seven turnovers, we followed that up against Washington State with single-digit turnovers and I think if you talk to (UW head coach) Lorenzo (Romar) it’s not like he was trying to turn us over, we just had a lot of careless, tough turnovers.”

While Miller wasn’t exactly sure why Arizona struggled against Washington’s zone, he did offer one explanation: the team is still working Allonzo Trier into the rotation.

“We’ve added a player and it affects everybody…it affects virtually every possession of the game,” Miller said. “It affects our substitution pattern, it affects how we attack a zone. Today was really the first time where we played against that type of zone with some of the combinations we had and in my opinion, that’s one of the reasons that made us tentative. I thought Allonzo, he’s come out of the gates and played great, he was as tentative in the first half against the zone as any of our players.

“But if you really think about his path, that was probably the first game this season that he’s played against a 2-3 zone. Usually you have that feeling in November. I really believe he had that feeling today and we’re going to be better because of it. We’re going to talk to him, we’re going to show him some things on film, but I also believe that’s part of what we’re doing. We’re working through some things as a group. And it’s not really chemistry thing, it’s just some of the things we have to be better at.”

The Wildcats’ offense turned things around in the second half, as they shot 48 percent from the field, 5-11 from 3, and had nine assists to four turnovers.

In the end, they outscored the Huskies 46-33 in the final 20 minutes, allowing them to come away with a 77-66 home victory.

“In the second half, we did a much better job of attacking their zone,” Miller said. “We played with four turnovers, and like three of them might have happened in the final minutes so we went about 16 minutes without turning the ball over and doing a much better job against the zone.

“They played a few possessions man-to-man, but we scored 46 points in the second half. A lot of those points were in transition and against their zone. In the first half, we were even reluctant in transition for whatever reason.”

This isn’t the first time Arizona has struggled against a zone (Arizona fans know that by now) and Miller said preventing that in the future starts with him.

“If our team late in January is tentative against a zone, then I have to fix that and we have to go back to work,” he said. “Which we will.”

Small Huskies overpower Wildcats in the paint

The Wildcats were eventually able to figure out the Huskies’ zone, but they weren’t able to keep them off the glass.

Despite being significantly smaller than Arizona’s NBA-sized front court, Washington grabbed 18 offensive rebounds, which led to 18 second chance points. It also had a 42-28 advantage in points in the paint.

The Huskies only shot 39 percent from the field, but their relentlessness under the basket kept them in the game.

“They hurt us badly with 18 second shots,” Miller said. “It’s a little bit deceptive if you look at our defensive numbers, it’s like ‘hey, you did a nice job’ but if you give up 18 second shots, that’s really a problem. And we can’t do that because some teams that we have remaining on our schedule are also good offensive rebounding. You give up 18, they may have some other things that pushes them over the top. We’ve been good defensive rebounding. We can’t lose that.”

Arizona had 30 defensive rebounds in total, but 14 of them came from guards Allonzo Trier and Kadeem Allen — the same number of rebounds UA got from its trio of 7-footers.

“We have to do a better job of blocking out and playing post defense,” Miller said.

“We have to learn from it and get better and hopefully use this as a great learning experience that, in conference play this late in the year, every game is a test and there’s going to be some teams that are going to really come after us because of our ranking, who we are, and what our record is.

“So when you’re taking the other team’s best shot, you have to be at your best or else you’re vulnerable and the only thing you have to do is look around the country. There’s teams losing all the time because of what I just said. It’s very difficult to be good every game.”

Arizona has what is likely its biggest game of the year coming up next weekend in Eugene when the Wildcats visit the Oregon Ducks on Saturday. Arizona is 9-0 in Pac-12 play, but Miller fears his team’s first conference loss is on the way if they play similarly to way they did against Washington and Washington State.

“I’m concerned going to Oregon,” he said. “We have to get some of the things back that we had that we didn’t do as well here in the last two games.”

Arizona’s defensive rebounding percentage fell to 72.8 for the season, dropping them to 77th in the country, per KenPom.com. However, the Wildcats do have the third-best defensive rebounding percentage in the Pac-12 since the start of conference play (73.6).


You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire