When the Arizona Wildcats boarded their plane for Battle 4 Atlantis, Sean Miller never would have guessed his team would return with three losses.
“I thought we were a much more confident and ready group for that tournament,” he said.
Then reality hit.
Arizona’s defense was in worse shape than expected, its freshmen lost their confidence, and there was little time to make repairs having three games in three days.
Now Arizona, once ranked No. 2, is out of the AP Poll for the first time in 100 weeks.
Miller isn’t panicking.
“There are stories in sports every year that are ... even worse than ours that at some point later that same season that group, that team, that coach can look back and say the best thing that happened to this year’s team was what we learned when we, in our case, lost three games in a row in the Battle 4 Atlantis,” he said.
“From that point on we were able to fix these things, we knew our problems, we knew our strengths, and we got back on track. ... Now it’s up to us to make that come true.”
That quest starts Wednesday when Arizona returns to the floor to host Long Beach State (6 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks). Though, Miller said he doesn’t see that game as a chance to get on track but, rather, improve.
“I’m anxious to see what we learned,” he said. “Are we moving in the right direction based on what we know as fact from that tournament?”
Fact one: Arizona is struggling to control the defensive glass. Fact two: the Wildcats aren’t getting back on defense.
Arizona (3-3) ranks 179th in college basketball in defensive rebounding percentage, and is surrendering an effective field goal percentage of 62.3 percent in transition (defined as shots taken within 10 seconds of a steal, defensive rebound, or score).
Last year, teams only had an eFG% of 50.2 against Arizona in transition.
“After the Bahamas we’re going to take (transition defense) a lot more seriously,” said freshman guard Brandon Randolph.
Which is needed since Miller said “a couple players” haven’t been taking it seriously enough — and they might not play anymore if that continues.
“There’s two things that guys understand: when you run them and they can’t breathe or you take them out and they don’t get back into the game,” he said. “Both of those things are going to happen. It’s already started to happen.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, how many points you score, where you’re from, how tall you are, how short you are, you have to be able to run back on defense, communicate with your teammates and make that important. And be able to block out, get the ball when they miss a shot. Those two things, we’ll start there.”
Miller said UA’s older players, like Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier, have to lead the freshmen by example.
Kadeem Allen did that last year, and Miller said the Wildcats “feel his void.”
“I think they know now more than ever how important their voice is. How important it is to show them the way. They’re this year’s version of Kadeem because of their experience,” Miller said of PJC and Trier. “Their leadership, being able to play both sides of the ball, that’s something we really, really need from those two guys right now.”
Arizona also needs its freshmen to step up. Aside from Deandre Ayton and one 17-point outing by Randolph, who will make his first career start Wednesday, the Wildcats got next to nothing from their newcomers in the Bahamas.
“It’s really confidence,” Miller said Monday on his weekly radio show. “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.
“Each one of our freshmen has to be able to relax, and on defense give us their heart and soul and great effort. Offensively, they know what to do and how to do and get out there and let the game come to them.”
Miller expects Long Beach State (3-4) to test the Wildcats’ lackluster transition defense. The 49ers play at the 21st-quickest tempo in college basketball, per KenPom, making them the fasted-paced team Arizona has played this season.
Plus, the 49ers are no strangers to playing top-tier teams. Long Beach has faced Missouri, West Virginia, Nebraska and Oregon State (twice) this year.
The 49ers beat the Beavers 74-69 last Friday.
“They’re battle-tested. They play the best of the best, so It’s not like they’re going to walk into McKale and worry about anything,” Miller said. “Plus, there’s a lot of teams that are going to lick their chops when they come in here now. They’re going to look at our team as being the most vulnerable Arizona team ever.”
The Wildcats are licking their chops, too, but mainly because they finally have an opportunity to put that three-game skid behind them.
“We’re definitely eager,” said Randolph, who added that the team was angry after Battle 4 Atlantis. “We want to get back to ourselves.”
My full story on Randolph starting and Rawle Alkins’ health can be found here.
I compiled a ton of Miller’s quotes about a variety of topics from his radio show here.
Miller said there isn’t anyone on the roster he trusts to guard the opponents’ best player.
Is anyone close?
“No,” Miller said.
When asked if losing two assistant coaches, Book Richardson and Joe Pasternack, this offseason could have anything to do with the slow start, Miller said: “My focus is always on the same things. Our focus is always on the same things.”
Miller wasn’t sure if he still plans to mix in some zone defense moving forward.
“We’ve got to get good at something first,” he said.
Miller floated the idea in the Bahamas as a way to get Ayton and Dusan Ristic on the floor together when opposing teams go small. Miller mentioned Tuesday that UA’s 7-footers need more touches near the basket.
Both are shooting over 60 percent from the field.
“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,” Miller said. “That will do nothing but continue.”
Miller breaks each game down into 10 four-minute segments and charts how many Arizona wins. The Wildcats went 9-21 in their three games in the Bahamas.
“What that tells me is … we weren’t the better team in those games, especially against Purdue,” he said. “They were clearly more experienced, more seasoned, a better overall team than us. SMU and NC State, both games could have gone either way, but it’s not one thing that’s doing us in and it’s not one player or just our freshmen. It’s really the whole.”
Miller said what was disappointing about the Purdue game is Arizona allowed a 15-point lead with eight minutes left balloon into a 25-point win for the Boilermakers.
“We caved in at the very end,” he said.
Miller said Purdue guard Dakota Mathias, who scored 24 points on 9-13 shooting against Arizona, should help UA’s freshmen understand the level of talent in the college game.
“I don’t know if he’ll play in the NBA, but there isn’t a player on our team that had an understanding of who he was before the tournament, but he dominated the game because he’s an older, smart, tough-minded really good college basketball player,” Miller said.
“It gets the attention of our freshman that if somebody like that is that good and you don’t really know who he is, it’s a sign of things to come. But if I had a do over, we really could have benefitted from a scrimmage where we got some of this reality in a closed-door setting and learned some of these lessons across the board prior to leaving for the Bahamas because three consecutive days against those three days, there will be a lot of teams that will drop a couple.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire