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Arizona’s defense has ‘a lot of issues’

The main one is the inability to stop dribble penetration

Northern Arizona v Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats need more pass rushers and fewer wide receivers.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a basketball article? Yes, but that’s a metaphor Sean Miller used to describe the state of UA basketball on Wednesday.

“We’re looking for guys to come in and blitz the quarterback. We don’t need the wide receiver who’s looking for the touchdown,” he said. “We have to balance this thing out.”

Arizona has been an offense-first, defense-second team through two games. The Wildcats have scored 100 points in more in both games, but have been lackluster on defense, posting the 188th defensive efficiency in the country, allowing 99.3 points per 100 possessions.

Two other stats jump out at Miller.

In the season-opener, NAU got to the free throw line 30 times. Then UMBC sank 14 of 29 3-pointers against the UA.

So while Arizona’s offense has been unstoppable in its own right, and Miller is happy about that, he is “equally concerned” about the defense.

“Our defense hasn’t been very good,” he said. “It’s really not one thing.”

Miller said Arizona’s defense “has a lot of issues” namely its effort, concentration, and inability to stop dribble penetration — and at all positions. Not just the big men.

“(NAU) did a really good job of driving the ball against us. I don’t want to take any credit away from them, but we also contributed to that,” Miller said.

“The second game, we gave up 14 made 3s. It’s so hard to win a game when you’re giving up 14 3s. I thought the 3s they made, a couple of them in the first half might have been tough, but for the most part they got good looks. … A lot of their 3s came off dribble penetration. Those are real problems.”

Miller said Arizona, like all college teams, will shorten its rotation once more games and practices are under the team’s belt and separation starts to become obvious among its players.

Miller certainly has enough talent in his arsenal to be choosy about who he does or does not play, so he said Thursday’s game against Cal State Bakersfield will be a “big, big test” for the Wildcats. Playing time is up for grabs heading into Battle 4 Atlantis.

“Eventually what you come to is you’re no longer going to play because you’re not willing to play defense the way we need to play or you’re going to play less,” Miller said.

“On the contrary, you’re going to play more, you’re going to now start because you’re doing things that we need you to do defensively. Basketball is a two-way sport. You have to play defense and offense and I don’t want to get caught in the world of just trying to outscore people, because I think we all know how that works. You win some, you lose some.”

Miller definitely knows.

Arizona ranked 29th in adjusted defensive efficiency the past two seasons, which both ended in heartbreaking fashion because the team couldn’t get timely stops, Miller opined.

“Each of the last two years, I wouldn’t say our team was a great defensive unit. I would say we would be considered a good defensive team. We were top 30,” he said.

“Two years ago, that got us a destructive loss against Wichita State where they beat us up, threw us out of the way, blew us out, kicked us out of the tournament. They were the bigger, stronger, tougher, more physical team. That wasn’t even close. We learned from that experience. And a year ago, a big part of our loss in the tournament to Xavier stemmed from our inability to get key stops at key moments to keep a red-hot offensive player — Trevon Bluiett —from having a career game. What happened in that game is our defensive stopper (Kadeem Allen) picked up two early fouls, so others had to pick up for him. Well, we couldn’t do it.

“Fans always focus on the last shot, how we attacked the zone, I am sure we could have done better. But if we were a more consistent, tougher defensive team, we could have found a way to win that game and advance. I’ll use those two as examples because when you get into that neutral court setting in March, you’re going against good teams, coaches that have been there before, and a lot of familiarity between each other. So I’ll use those two as an example. Trying to outscore the other team isn’t going to work because you’re going to have that moment.”

He’s right.

In the KenPom era (since 2002), the worst defensive team to win the national championship was North Carolina in 2009, ranked 18th overall in defensive efficiency.

But the Tar Heels also had the nation’s top offense by a wide margin. In general, most teams that win the title have top-10 defenses.

So as effective and entertaining as the Wildcats’ offense has been this season, it won’t mean a thing if the defense doesn’t sizably improve.

“My hope,” Miller said, “is that playing five freshmen, in a brand new season here early in November, that we can make significant progress each week, each day, every game we play.”

He added: “We’re not going to go from kindergarten to high school right away, but if we’re in first or second grade on defense, what I hope is we can be in fourth or fifth grade in the next game and then just keep progressing so that as we improve in the month of November a lot of it is about our defense and where it should be."

Is Arizona’s pace affecting its defense?

Arizona’s offense is currently playing at its fastest pace in the Miller era by a wide margin, averaging 15.3 seconds per possession.

I asked Miller if that could be affecting the Wildcats’ defense.

Here was his answer:

“We’ve actually played at a pretty fast clip in a couple seasons more so than others. That doesn’t mean your defense has to be porous, or you trade baskets, or you break down because we’re trying to get it out of the net. That’s not going to work,” he said.

“There’s more possessions, it’s just a matter of do they make or miss their shots. Even though there’s more possessions, that doesn’t mean our defense is less. That’s really not an excuse. And if we have a team that has depth, more possessions should favor us most of the time. As we aspire to do that, that doesn’t mean that anything should change defensively.

“And if you’re a good defensive team, there’s going to be a number of times when that team is going to have a hard time getting a good, early shot. They’re going to have to be more patient, you’re going to see them trying to get a good shot in the last 10 seconds. If you think about our first couple games, that hasn’t happened a whole lot where the last 10 seconds of the clock and they’re working just to get a shot off. That hasn’t happened because of us, so hopefully we have more of those types of possessions waiting on us [Thursday.]”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire