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Arizona basketball: Wildcats’ newcomers excelling on defense despite inexperience

Arizona’s first-year players being coachable is a big help

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Arizona’s newcomers have been productive.

Take one look at the team’s stat-sheet and their numbers jump off the page. Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, and Rawle Alkins are the team’s leading scorers and minute-getters. Markkanen leads the team in rebounding. Keanu Pinder is at the top in blocks. All four have played in every game.

But what isn’t fully represented on the stat-sheet is their defensive impact. Despite half of Arizona’s rotation being comprised of first-year players, the Wildcats rank ninth in college basketball in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.

Last year’s Wildcats — a far more experienced team which started three seniors — finished the season with the 29th-best defense.

“This year, with so many newcomers, you worry about your ability to defend, but I feel like we’ve improved, we’ve gotten better,” head coach Sean Miller said. “I don’t know if we’re a top-10 defensive team, but we’re playing good defense and I think we have more of an upside.”

Each newcomer has unique tools on the defensive end. For Markkanen, it’s his agility at his size. For Simmons, it’s his size, length, and athleticism. For Alkins, it’s his brute strength. For Pinder, it’s his quickness and tenacity.

Perhaps their best attribute, though, is that they are coachable.

“We have a group of guys that don’t fight the coach on what we’re trying to become better at,” Miller said. “A year ago, I don’t know if we completely embraced the idea the identity of trying to be good at both offense and defense. This year, to me, we have a much better disposition to understand that defense is important.”

Even if it’s not as enjoyable or highlight-worthy as dunking or draining a 3.

“Defense is not fun. It’s not like you’re going to get an article written about how well you played help defense in a game,” Miller said. “You’re going to get many articles written about the points that you scored. So, from an individual perspective, you’re driven to do that on offense. If you’re consumed with trying to be a winner and play for a top prize and winning is really about who you are, then you know that there’s going to be so many nights where the ball’s not going in or you’re playing against an incredible offensive team and you have to be great at defense to have a chance. Those types of teams and players have a way of improving and getting those hard fought victories.”

Sometimes a first-year player has to be benched before they realize the importance of playing sound defense, but not for these newcomers. They aren’t perfect, but they play with consistent effort.

“It’s very difficult and it’s a great compliment you can pay to Lauri, Keanu, Rawle, and Kobi,” Miller said. “Sometimes you’re going to make mistakes, but effort is the non-negotiable. We really haven’t had that (problem) this year, so we’ve lived with their mistakes. Maybe that’s part of why they’ve improved, but to their credit their attitude has been tremendous and that helps.”

The Wildcats, now ranked 17th in college basketball, are benefitting from recruiting not just talented players, but the right type of players.

“There’s two types of players,” Miller said. “There’s the guy that doesn’t want to hear it, and who will act like he’s listening and there’s the player that really just wants to know what he’s done wrong.

“All of those guys fall into that second category. They’re willing learners, they’re good teammates, and they really care about winning and that helps them be coachable.”


You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire