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Post-Bahamas notebook: On Arizona’s defense, more touches for Ayton and Ristic, freshman struggles, Alkins’ return and more

Notes and quotes from Sean Miller’s radio show

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

The unranked Arizona Wildcats have returned to Tucson after losing three games in the Bahamas and return to the court Wednesday when they host Long Beach State.

Before that, Sean Miller had his weekly radio show on Monday, and here are some notes and quotes from it about all sorts of basketball topics.

Miller outlined two areas in need of the most improvement: defensive rebounding and transition defense.

Miller gave UA’s transition defense an F for its performance in the Bahamas.

“A lot of that starts with our older guards, the players that have been there before. They know what to do and how to do it. Transition defense it’s like being on special teams in football. Only you truly know how hard you’re running. Your coach does as well. But the fans a lot of times, they’re just judging you on did we get a tackle or not.

Transition defense is something that you have to make the game 5-on-5. You can’t give teams easy breakout 3s. You have two people guarding the same person and all of a sudden there’s an easy basket at the rim. Why? Because we didn’t have communication and that’s something we can control right now. The consequences of not doing that well are big. That is the absolute.

“If there’s one thing we can do an about-face where you’re like ‘they went from an F to maybe a B’ it’s in transition defense. Our guards, our bigs understanding that you have to get back and make the game 5-on-5.

That’s something in the past that we’ve taken a lot of pride in. We have very little pride in that right now and that was a big, big thing that hurt us in all three games. I would say with Parker (Jackson-Cartwright) and Allonzo (Trier), if you want to hold them accountable to anything here early, they have to teach the younger guards the importance of it. They have to do it in the game, they have to talk about it and they have to lead in that area.”

Deandre Ayton is averaging 12 rebounds per game, but no one else is averaging more than 5.8 and Arizona ranks 283rd in defensive rebounding percentage in the country, hence why Miller sees it as an area of improvement.

“We have to support Deandre’s defensive rebounding as a team. Everybody. SMU beat us because they got second shots. Their guards, their wings beat us up on the glass. There were some key plays there where they got to the ball, got second shots, got third shots and when you give teams like them that many chances, you lose.

They shot 70 times against us, we shot 49. It’s amazing that it was a close game. Our defense was actually better in that game if you judge us on first-shot defense or how many times they missed or how hard we played, it was probably the best performance of the three, but we didn’t finish the possession.

Our teams traditionally have done a great job defensive rebounding. It’s built to make it so that we get that rebound, and some of the games we’ve won that have been our biggest victories started with our ability to dominate the glass.

“[Defensive rebounding and transition defense] aren’t two exciting things to talk about but those are some things that from an accountability standpoint, things we gotta get better at right now. It’s the beginning of the possession, getting back, and at the end of the possession: (giving up just) one shot. ... If we do those two things I think you’ll see we’ll improve in a lot of areas."

Miller said having three games in three days made it difficult for Arizona to fix any of its issues while in the Bahamas, but the losses could wind up being a good thing for the team in the long run.

"You can’t, in a ballroom on a quick turnaround, three games three days, all of a sudden do an about-face or become the team that you want to become.

“Three games in three days is an immense challenge in college basketball. Part of what we dealt with is we lost our confidence. We have a number of things we have to get better at.

“I can make the argument that there could be a time down the road this season that we look at our experience in the Bahamas going to Atlantis and losing these three games as the very, very best thing that could have happened to this team. That’s what you have to say now because there’s not an alternative that’s good, but we have to work hard to make that the truth. And we have all the makings of it.

Why did UA’s freshmen (other than Ayton) struggle so much in the Bahamas? Here was Miller’s response.

“With the freshmen, it’s really confidence. It’s about those guys learning from their mistakes, not feeling that they have to do everything perfect when they’re out there but to play the game free.

That’s really what happened with Brandon Randolph. He didn’t play a lot in his first couple games, the score started to get away from us and he just came in and said ‘let me see what I can do’ and next thing you know God he looks like somebody who’s really going to be a terrific player.

“But each one of our freshmen have to be able to relax and on defense give us their heart and soul and great effort. But offensively they know what to do and how to do and get out there and let the game come to them.

“Alex Barcello is a great example. Before we went to the Bahamas, Alex was terrific. He was getting better each week. We were playing him at both the 1 and the 2 — he’s one of our team’s best shooters — he didn’t have a single turnover leading into those games. And man you watch him down there and he got rattled in the first game and really maybe more so than anyone really lost his confidence. But as quick as you can lose it you can get it back.

“We need all of our freshmen because when you look at our roster, we’re really counting on that class and group of people to help us day in and day out. If you look at the Bahamas, when we don’t have them playing well it hurts our team."

Miller praised Ira Lee and Keanu Pinder for their energy and defensively ability, but said they got beat off the dribble in the Bahamas, and Pinder bit for ball fakes.

“The thing about them in the Bahamas was as well as they did at times, and I get Keanu made some exciting plays so did Ira, they got beat off the dribble in a number of instances playing against someone like them. You put them in against someone like a face-up four and every team we played had a four man that was more a wing than a big man.

“So Keanu and Ira are great matchups for them defensively, but Keanu sometimes went for fakes. And as he goes for fakes, he’s out of position and he takes his greatest strength, which is his quickness, and all of a sudden he adds to our problem.

“A big part of our film and giving those as feedback is their role on our team is … to be a great defender. We have to be able to trust that whoever they defend they’re going to get the job done, and in addition to that, they’re going to get steals and blocks and do things that are going to help us.

“That tournament really defines the importance of both of those guys."

One thing Miller said he learned in the Bahamas is that Ayton and Dusan Ristic need more touches.

The duo is averaging 11 made field goals per game while shooting over 60 percent.

“It makes sense for our team to give them the ball. Good things are going to happen. Part of what’s going to open up the 3-point line and easier shots for our perimeter (players) is to get them the ball in scoring position. To throw it to them when they’re open, that when we have the option of running our set plays and our transition game to never miss them and let them put fouls on the other team and shoot 60 percent and kick it out when it’s needed. I think that will give us a lot more balance.

“You look at Allonzo, it’s really difficult to guard somebody like Allonzo when he has two bigs in the game who can score. We always talk about matching up against smaller teams, they also have to match up against us. I think we have to do an overall better job of utilizing those two guys around the basket and everything we do. What did you learn in the Bahamas? We learned that.”

Miller said Ristic’s minutes are going to increase. The 7-footer didn’t play a whole lot in the Bahamas because Miller felt the opponents’ small-ball approach was a difficult matchup to play Ayton and Ristic at the same time.

“I don’t think (Ristic has) ever played better basketball in practice and in games. At first you wondered how Deandre and him would co-exist, but Deandre can guard a four-man. As a matter of fact, he was the best at guarding a face-up four.

“I think we’ve learned more and more about Deandre defensively and I’m looking forward to getting those two guys clicking more on offense and using that to our advantage because if you look at Dusan’s efficiency right now, it’s off the charts. That will do nothing but continue.”

Miller said Rawle Alkins is “right around the corner” from being cleared to play, but isn’t quite ready to return just yet.

“We don’t want to rush him. We have to be very smart. When you have a Jones fracture, the worst thing you can do is come back too early. He’s at nine weeks on Wednesday, it was an eight-to-12-week diagnosis. He wouldn’t have been ready a week ago, he’s not ready right now, but I think he’s right around the corner from being cleared and we have our fingers crossed.”

Miller said Arizona missed Alkins in the Bahamas.

“It would have been nice to have an older, experienced player out there so the freshmen that played didn’t have to do as much or we didn’t have to count on them as heavily, but the fact is Rawle is going to join us at some point and when he does that, if nothing else changes, will make our team a lot better.”

Miller said if Arizona had success in the Bahamas it “might have been some fool’s gold of what’s to come.”

“We have no fool’s gold. When you’re a program that’s been ranked for 100 weeks in a row ... We’re now the team that broke that streak. We’re the team that finished in eighth place in Atlantis. We’re the team that’s lost three games in a row. That’s who we are, so it’s not like anyone’s walking around with their chest out. There’s a healthy reality to that. We have our team’s undivided attention. When I talk, they listen. I think that they understand that we as a group have to get better and that’s the quest. We’ve approached the last two days like that and we’re not going to stop anytime soon."

When asked if Arizona’s guards turned the ball over too much in the Bahamas, Miller said:

“We turned it over too much as a team. Allonzo going into the Battle 4 Atlantis was doing a really great job being efficient with his assist to turnovers. He didn’t do a good job there. Some of it was on him but some of it was when things aren’t clicking … it’s like football. The quarterback gets blamed a lot but at the end of the day when you look at it sometimes his interceptions or lack of quality is the function of the line not blocking, the receivers not getting open or on that particular route the receivers ran the wrong play.

“No one really knows it except the locker room. We have some of that going on where somebody like Allonzo has to take on the burden of some things that weren’t efficient and that led to turnovers.”

Miller said many other things about Trier’s performance in the Bahamas — some of the quotes can be found on my Twitter feed — but I will be writing a separate piece on that.