It looked like exactly what the Arizona Wildcats needed.
Coming off three losses in the Bahamas, the Wildcats returned to the friendly confines of McKale Center and routed Long Beach State 91-56 on Wednesday to get back into the win column.
UA shot over 60 percent from the field, four freshmen scored in double figures, its defense had one of its best outings of the season, and it improved in areas that in struggled in in Battle 4 Atlantis, namely transition defense and defensive rebounding.
Yet, Sean Miller took longer than usual to arrive at his postgame presser, declined to make an opening statement, and eventually went on a 30-minute rant.
About what? A lot of things.
“Our effort is terrible”
While Arizona might have appeared to be a team that got on track, winning by 35 points and all, Miller said the team’s play is “disappointing” and defensively is where Arizona has “the biggest gap” — and all the issues start with a lack of effort.
Miller said the Wildcats are a “lifeless group a lot of times.”
“We really struggle to play with great effort,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a group that just can’t bring it, can’t work, can’t really fight defensively.”
Long Beach State shot just 41 percent from the field, which would signify a solid defensive performance for the Wildcats, but Miller didn’t see it that way.
“It’s not glass half empty, hall full, it’s just the truth,” he said. “Players only understand the truth. If you say 'that’s OK, fellas,' they know you don’t mean it. We judge ourselves on the standards of our program. Everybody in here knows what those standards are. Everybody knows what we’re trying to accomplish, including the players. Every one of our players wants to play in the NBA. Most of our younger players think this spring they’re going to go in the NBA. You have to be able to run full speed, turn your body, point, talk, and match up on defense. There’s a progression here. Just because you come to Arizona … doesn’t mean you get to play in the NBA. It’s about doing things the right way, playing with amazing effort and energy, doing it everyday with no excuses.
“And then, you make a couple shots, great things happen, and you see younger players grow, but that’s the foundation and starting point, but I think our effort’s terrible."
Miller said the “medicine” for that is benching players.
“Now you don’t play the guy who doesn’t play hard at all and if he does play, the only way he gets to play is if he plays with tremendous spirit, emotion, togetherness, fight,” he said.
Miller referred to an old saying coaching legend Skip Prosser used to use.
“Everybody dresses up for trick or treating and gets candy. In college basketball, just because you put the uniform on doesn’t mean you’ll get to play. We may play six or seven players because we have to go on effort,” Miller said.
“And for some of our other guys, just because in the past you started and played 32 minutes, doesn’t mean you’re going to start and play 32 minutes because you did that last year. It’s a brand new season. We need guys playing with their heart and soul and playing with great effort. If we go to UNLV and we pick and choose how hard we play and we’re trying to figure it out, we’re not going to win. Our only hope is to play with great effort. And if we play with great effort and we lose, we’ll keep getting better. That’s so much right now of where we’re at.
“We have enough evidence in the Bahamas that a big part of our failure was inconsistent effort on defense and we’re trying to fix that. It’s not being nice and giving everybody a hug when you walk in when you’re trying to fix that. That is the hardest thing to do as a coach — to get a group of guys to buy in to playing hard when they’re not.”
“We have a couple veterans that aren’t showing the way”
So why haven’t the players bought in? Arizona has five freshmen in its rotation and hardly any veteran leadership.
“We have a lot of younger players that probably don’t have enough evidence yet to realize how hard it is to win in college basketball, how hard you have to play. We have a couple veterans that aren't showing the way,” Miller said. “That combination is who we are right now.”
Miller insists Kadeem Allen didn’t get enough credit for his impact on Arizona basketball.
Not only was Allen an elite defender more than capable of guarding the opposing team’s best player, but his effort level never wavered which permeated throughout the rest of the team.
Nobody on Arizona has taken on that role this year.
“We need a couple of our veterans, we need guys who have been here and done it before to really embody the qualities of playing hard, playing together, being in the right spot,” Miller said.
Miller has pegged Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier as those who need to do that.
Jackson-Cartwright sort of did Wednesday, picking up three steals and “injecting our team with life,” Miller said.
“He just has to be the best he can. If he’s not playing great defense, playing with tremendous effort, talking, if he’s not in the right spot he’s the floor general so it really affects everybody,” he said. “We really need him to set the tone.”
Rawle Alkins is someone else who could do that. In fact, Miller said he “knows” Alkins is “part of the solution.”
“He’s a really big part of our team, bigger than maybe any of us realized because there’s such a drop off emotionally, there’s such a drop off physically without him,” he said.
“The reality for us is we’re not that talented”
Returning a strong group of players and adding the No. 3 recruiting class, Arizona was perceived as one of the most talented teams in the country heading into the season.
So far its highly-touted freshmen haven’t lived up to expectations (not including Deandre Ayton, of course).
Ayton was the only freshman who performed consistently during the team’s three-game losing streak. Brandon Randolph did have a 17-point game, but was a no-show in the other two. So were the other three freshmen.
“We have talent, we’re just not overwhelming,” Miller said.
“When I was watching the Bahamas games, I can only watch the TV copy and I kept seeing the No. 3 recruiting class in the country pop up on the screen like 75 times. I find myself saying, ‘where’d you go?’
“The race starts all over again in college. Just because you were ranked such and such in 11th grade, no one cares. … It doesn’t matter what you were ranked before you showed up here.
“We’re counting on this class to be a big reason why this team is good, and you have to perform. You don’t have to score 20. You don’t have to get 20 and 10. … But you have to be confident, you have to be able to do your job. We have to be able to count on you day in and day out by getting better and giving effort. That creates energy and that creates depth. That creates excitement because wherever a freshman is in November, they’re going to keep improving, we know that. But where’s their starting point? Are we going to improve to the point where in the Pac-12 we have a couple of these freshmen that are some of the best in the conference? Or are we starting so low that let’s hope that when we get to Pac-12 that they can just make a few positive plays?”
Wednesday’s game was actually a pretty good showing by Arizona’s freshmen. Four of the five scored in double figures. The only one who didn’t was Emmanuel Akot who was limited with knee tendinitis, Miller said.
Miller said the freshman class still has upside, and it shouldn’t be judged on the first month of the season, but “the reality for us is we’re not that talented. We have to play really, really hard.”
“For us it starts with a consistent, 40 minutes, two and a half hours of effort,” he said. “Once that’s established, some of the other things that our team is good at will really start to shine and we’ll have success, but we have a longer way to go in that area than I had hoped.
“It’s disappointing through seven games that this is where we’re at, but I’m not going to duck it, we’re not going to duck it. We’re going to work hard to improve.”
Arizona’s schedule only gets more treacherous from here. The Wildcats play their first road game Saturday against UNLV. After that, they return to Arizona to face No. 9 Texas A&M and No. 24 Alabama.
Miller said he isn’t afraid to lose, which is good because he said his team is capable of dropping six games in a row.
“When you pick and choose on defense and you’re not the most talented group,” he said, “you’re going to win a few and you’ll certainly lose a few. Especially on the road and against the best teams on our schedule.
He added: "But it’s really not about that, it’s about where we’re at as a group. It’s about establishing a way of doing things every day. How hard are you working? How hard are you working in practice? How does it carry into a game?”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire