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Arizona considering zone defense to combat opponents’ small-ball approach

Teams have been going small against Arizona, forcing Sean Miller to take Dusan Ristic out of the game

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Arizona vs SMU Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Dusan Ristic only played one minute in the second half of the Arizona Wildcats’ loss to SMU on Thursday.

The Mustangs used small, athletic lineups and spread the floor, making UA head coach Sean Miller uncomfortable playing Ristic and Deandre Ayton — two 7-footers — concurrently.

With Ayton pouring in his fifth double-double in as many games, he was too valuable to take off the court, so Miller opted to bench Ristic.

SMU’s strategy worked, as it outscored No. 2 Arizona 36-29 in the second half on its way to a 66-60 upset victory.

The Wildcats missed Ristic’s scoring. Ayton and Allonzo Trier combined for 25 of UA’s 29 second-half points, getting virtually zero help from their supporting cast.

Ristic, who had scored six points in 11 minutes in the first half and is the team’s third-leading scorer, could have been that support.

NC State had success going small in its win over Arizona on Wednesday too, so the Wildcats will probably see a lot of their opponents take that approach moving forward.

Knowing that, Miller is considering mixing in some zone defense so he can play Ayton and Ristic together without worrying about them having to chase quicker players around the perimeter.

“As a coach you have to figure out how to put your best players on the court, and there are times with Deandre and (Dusan) together we may have to look at some zone,” Miller told Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star. “I know that’s something we haven’t done a whole lot in my time but in our current situation, just big picture, Dusan is such a force in the low post and he’s such a good scorer that it’s difficult to rationalize that he’s not able to play him because they went small.”

Last year, Miller occasionally used zone defense so he could play Ristic, Lauri Markkanen, and Chance Comanche together and conserve the energy of a team that was often short-handed.

Miller used zone in 2015-16 too because, well, that team had serious issues defending off the dribble.

But even then, UA’s zone was just a change-of-pace type of thing rather than an actual staple of its defense — plus it wasn’t all that effective. So it’s always hard to take Miller that seriously when he says he’s considering deviating from his man-to-man principles.

But having lost two games in a row with Ristic being a non-factor in the second half both times, it does make sense for Arizona to explore different ways that it can get its duo of 7-footers on the floor together when its opponents go with four or five perimeter players.

Plus, Arizona’s man-to-man defense hasn’t exactly been super effective, either. The Wildcats are just 27th in college basketball in adjusted defensive efficiency, per

For more of Miller’s comments after UA’s loss to SMU, check out Pascoe’s postgame notes.