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Notebook: On Arizona’s rotation, the defense’s regression, Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s 3s, free throw shooting, and more

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Notes and quotes from Sean Miller’s radio show

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After beating Texas A&M and Alabama last week, the Arizona Wildcats don’t return to the court until Saturday when they travel to Albuquerque for a road game against the New Mexico Lobos.

Head coach Sean Miller held his weekly radio show Monday as Arizona gets ready to prepare for the one-game week, and here are some notes, quotes, and takeaways from it.


“Our defense has to change wholeheartedly”

Miller said of the nine teams he has coached at Arizona, this year’s squad is probably the “eighth-best” defensively.

“For us to really reach the lofty goals that we have ... our defense has to change wholeheartedly,” he said.

Yes it does — Arizona ranks 227th (of 351) in defensive efficiency, according to sports-reference.com.

“It really starts across the board with our older guys setting the tone, being responsible, being better,” Miller said. “Alabama’s strength is a lot of different things, but they were coming into our game as a much better defensive team. And against us, they had their way on offense. Quite frankly, they missed a couple good ones.

“We cannot get the tough-mindedness, the discipline, the teamwork on the defensive end that we had hoped for. And I think Rawle (Alkins) coming back will give us a shot in the arm as he settles in, but it’s not one person that’s going to correct it. It’s going to be day by day, practice by practice, and then slowly watching us do some things in game situations better than we have.”

Miller said he thought the highlight of Arizona’s defense this season was the Texas A&M game, but that it “clearly took a big step back against Alabama.”

“That’s why if you step back and say how can a guy on your team get 29 points and 18 rebounds (Deandre Ayton) and another get 20 points in the second half (Allonzo Trier) and you score 88 and you almost lost? It’s because we couldn’t stop them,” he said.

Miller did say Arizona has “repaired” some of its defensive rebounding woes, though.

“Generally, Deandre takes care of it,” he said. “… He’s the anchor to our defensive rebounding, but I do think we have some guys around him that are blocking out better, rebounding better, and that’s a good first step.

“Our problem is our guards being able to get back on defense. It’s just not important enough to them. We’re going to try a few things here this week with no games where a practice may help us establish that as something we have to do better.”

While Arizona’s offense ranks ninth in the country in efficiency, per KenPom, Miller believes it can reach even greater heights if the defense improves.

“If you get defensive stops, you get a defensive rebound, and all of a sudden you’re in transition, that’s about the best way you can get the ball inside or close to the basket,” he said.

“It’s more difficult to do that when the defense is set and it’s 5-on-5."


Rotation will be determined in the next two weeks, will likely feature eight or nine players

Now that Rawle Alkins has returned from a foot injury, Miller said Arizona will determine its rotation in the next two weeks.

“We’re depending on everybody. Just because somebody didn’t play last game or as much doesn’t mean that will be the case here moving forward,” he said.

“The thing we don’t want to do is move people in and out of the game where guys don’t get comfortable in their role, they’re unsure of themselves. Because we will never become the best team we can become until everybody knows their role and is comfortable in it.”

Miller also suggested Arizona will have an eight- or nine-man rotation when all is said and done.

“If you look right now across the country and you pick five of the best teams you respect the most, most of the time they’re settling in on a rotation of about eight,” he said. “If a ninth player plays, he might get in every game, but not as much and they go from there. I think that’s the direction we’ll move. It’s who’s in that is not determined quite yet.”

Last game, Dylan Smith, Alex Barcello, Emmanuel Akot, and Keanu Pinder seemed to fall out of the rotation. All played four minutes or fewer. Akot did not play at all, though he is battling knee tendinitis.


Fewer 3s ... unless you’re PJC

Arizona is shooting 57 percent on 2-point field goals this season, so Miller said his team should not be settling for perimeter shots.

The Wildcats are taking roughly 18 3s per game this season, shooting 38.1 percent.

“The jumpshots we have to take are the really good ones,” Miller said.

“It makes no sense because of the way our team is constructed to take a lot of jump shots. Because if the ball gets in and around the basket … we’re shooting an incredibly high percentage. And we get fouled and we’re a good free throw shooting team.”

One guy Miller is encouraging to shoot more 3s is Parker Jackson-Cartwright. The senior is 13 of 25 from behind the arc this season.

“At this time of year, I really try to remind him of how important it is that he shoots the ball from the 3-point line,” he said.

“Because his accuracy over a four-year period I would think would rank him as one of the top five shooters percentage-wise in the history of the Pac-12 from the 3-point line. ... This year he is doing it in non-conference play as well.”

Miller said PJC can be too unselfish sometimes.

“If he does that too much it actually works against him,” he said. “And he can’t bring out the best in his teammates because the guy who is covering him doesn’t have to give maximum effort and always know where he’s at.”

Still, Miller lauded PJC’s assist-to-turnover ratio, which is 50 to 16 this year.

“Those are the two things we’re really counting on him to do and he’s done those exceptionally well,” he said. “He competes defensively. I think Parker can do better on some of the things that maybe we overlook at times during the game, but … he’s really giving us his heart and soul and competing against the guy that he’s guarding.

“It’s a luxury to have a senior at the position because he’s been through everything. He’s been through the hostile environments on the road, he’s played against zone, man and there are very few things that Parker hasn’t been in front of as a college basketball player."


“When you don’t make free throws, at times it almost reminds you of a turnover”

Deandre Ayton had a career-high 29 points and 18 rebounds in the win over Alabama on Saturday, and Miller said it felt like Ayton did that “fairly easily.”

“You wonder how much more we could’ve helped him do if we would’ve gotten him the ball a little bit easier,” he said.

Or if Ayton made his free throws. The big man was 4 of 8 from the foul line.

“He’s in a little bit of a rut shooting free throws,” Miller said. “He’s a much better free throw shooter than he’s shown recently. He’ll shoot his way out of it, but if he makes his free throws in that game, he’s looking more at a 35-point effort as opposed to 29.”

As a team, Arizona only shot 22 of 35 from the line against Alabama, but Miller still believes Arizona is an excellent free throw shooting team.

“It might not feel like it, but as a team we’re shooting 74 percent and that’s on the heels on some really bad performances,” he said.

“Back to the Bahamas, one of the things we didn’t do in any of the three games, and it really cost us one, is we weren’t a good free throw shooting team, we were a bad free throw shooting team. And in that case, sometimes when you’re not sure of yourself as a player, the free-throw line isn’t as comfortable of a place as it normally is, and that was clearly the case in that tournament.

“When you don’t make free throws, at times it almost reminds you of a turnover. It’s an empty possession. But I believe over time for us, when you watch our team come together, we’ll not only get to the foul line a lot but we’ll shoot a high percentage. That was one of the great strengths of last year’s team and I believe it’s the same this year."


“ASU has proven that they have a terrific basketball team”

Miller was impressed by Washington and ASU beating Kansas last week.

“But ASU’s (win) in particular,” he said. “They beat them in Phog Allen Fieldhouse which might be the most difficult arena in the country to win in over the last 20 years. … If you can win that game, that says a lot about your team and I think ASU has proven that they have a terrific basketball team led by two terrific guards who are also are seniors. When you have that experience combined with talent that can really bring out in the best in each other."

ASU is No. 5 in the latest AP Poll. Arizona returns to the rankings at No. 23.


Ray’s role

Miller had this to say about Ray Smith’s role on the team:

“Ray is taking the approach that he’s on full scholarship and the No. 1 priority for him is to get his degree and focus all that attention on that and take advantage of all the academic support that we have available, which he’s doing.

“But in terms of him being part of our team on the bench and those things on a daily basis, I think it’s become harder when you’re not playing or even able to practice. Ray is always part of our program, always will be. He’s doing a really good job in school, but right now that’s his primary focus."


Looking ahead

The No. 1 priority heading into Saturday’s road game at New Mexico is taking care of the ball, Miller said.

The Lobos are 3-7 this year, but are forcing 20 turnovers per game.

“They’re a full throttle, full court pressure (team),” Miller said. “Denying, trapping, mixing their defenses up, they switch as much as any team we’ve ever faced, both on and off the ball.

“If we turn the ball over that will lead to transition and not allow us to get shots. When we played NC State that was our biggest quest. Because a lot like New Mexico, they pressed and they pressed for 40 minutes throughout the game. We played that game with eight turnovers. Our focus of taking care of the ball was really good.”

Miller said Arizona has improved “across the board” since the Bahamas, and denied that the team will lose its hunger after reappearing in the Top 25.

“It was a great experience in a lot of ways because one thing is for sure: everybody on our team completely understands how difficult it is to win, especially away from home,” he said of the trip to the Bahamas.

“However, especially on defense, we have to continue to grow and learn and add to what we’re doing. We’re really banking on Rawle, as an experienced, tough-minded, big, physical player, to help us in that area initially as much as any."


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire