The biggest challenge the Arizona Wildcats face this week is not on the basketball court, but in the classroom.
It’s finals week at the UA which means...
“A lot of work, a lot of long nights,” said freshman forward Ira Lee. “Thank God it’s almost over.”
Arizona only plays one game this week — a Saturday showcase against the New Mexico Lobos in Albuquerque — so head coach Sean Miller said school is the Wildcats’ main focus right now.
“They’re no different than any student that’s here. They’re finishing up final exams, final papers, there’s a lot of stress a lot of time spent,” he said. “As much as you want guys to work ahead, everybody’s done it at some point that’s gone to college, and that is that you wait until to the end (to do your work). There’s some really long nights and heavy days where you’re focused on finishing that one class or raising a grade, so that’s our priority.”
In years past, Arizona had multiple games during finals week, packing the Wildcats’ schedule even more.
“We’re lucky that we have the break that we do which allows our players to focus on [school],” Miller said. “Dusan (Ristic), Parker (Jackson-Cartwright), and Keanu (Pinder) — Keanu is a little bit different because he hasn’t been here for four years — but those guys are really coming down the home stretch of graduation. So for them to have the freedom just to focus on that, that’s our No. 1 priority.”
Miller said Pinder, who transferred in from Hutchinson Community College last fall, will graduate but will need to take some classes after the spring semester.
“It had nothing to do with how he performed here ... a couple things have changed in terms of the requirements,” Miller said. “What they count, what they don’t count, that puts a little more pressure on a junior college guy to get it done right there in the spring of his fourth semester at a place like Arizona, but he’s moving in the right direction and he’ll get his degree for sure."
Arizona took Sunday and Tuesday off, but it returned to practice Wednesday to prepare for New Mexico.
A much-needed study break.
“Basketball’s like a getaway from school,” Lee said. “It takes your mind off things, like a stressful grade, a stressful project.”
Still learning on the court, too
The Wildcats still have a lot to learn on the court, too. Especially on defense where they rank 226th in the country in efficiency.
Lee said he has never played “man-to-man group defense” like Arizona does now.
“I never did that. I’m still learning. I’ll have a few mistakes here and there, but I feel by the time Pac-12 comes I’ll be good,” he said.
Lee rates as Arizona’s second-best defender with a 3.3 defensive box plus/minus, only behind Pinder.
“As I kept learning, it made defense much easier,” Lee said. “I always thought you had to gamble to get a steal, but if you’re in the pack-line you’ll get a steal easily."
All UA’s freshmen can probably say the same thing.
“Yeah, that’s a weak point for most of us,” Lee said of learning how to rotate and switch. “AAU is, everybody knows about AAU, it’s showtime ball. … I think for most of us, especially in 2017, we have a lot to learn there.”
One of Lee’s takeaways from Arizona’s current four-game winning streak is the cohesion on defense.
“We still have a lot of things to fix, but it’s getting better,” he said. “Game by game things will get better and that’s what we talked about when we came home from the Bahamas.”
Miller’s take on the Alabama game
After re-watching the Alabama game, Miller said it was “what I thought.”
“We rode two great individual performances,” he said. “Everybody here at Arizona has seen some wonderful players and teams and magical moments, but Allonzo (Trier) has gone for 20 or more points multiple times this year in one half. It’s really hard to score 20 points in a college game, he’s done it in a single half I think three or four times. … I think that’s a remarkable stat. I think that shows the explosiveness of him offensively and how talented of a scorer he is.”
Miller pointed out that Trier has developed into a more efficient scorer. The junior scored 25 points on just six shots against Alabama.
Trier is shooting 39.6 percent from 3, and a blistering 68.1 percent inside the arc this season.
“His ability to score inside the arc right now for a guy right now is probably as good as anybody in the country,” Miller said. “Consider his free throw attempts and his field goal percentage. He was a big reason we won the Alabama game and I don’t know if I talked about him enough.”
Miller’s attention has been on UA’s defense instead.
“A reminder to our team about why the game was so tight, some of it had to do with the fact that we’re playing against a good team, but our defense was porous,” he said.
“(Alabama) scored, we fouled them. If we needed a couple big stops, we didn’t really get them, so the game came down to the final minutes instead of us riding a 10-point, 15-point victory because we played some really good offense, especially those two players (Trier and Deandre Ayton)."
More praise for Randolph
When I asked Miller about Trier after the Alabama game, he pivoted to raving about Brandon Randolph who has scored in double-figures four of the last five games.
Miller had more praise for Randolph on Wednesday.
“Brandon offensively is really talented. Him shooting an open shot from 3 is a great shot for our team. There are very few players on our team that I’d like to see shoot that more than him,” he said.
“Allonzo might come to mind, Parker is right there, but Brandon has a lot of confidence and he can shoot it. He’s not small. He can get his shot off as well … But the thing that’s impressed me the most is offensively he’s put the ball on the floor a couple times and made some great plays and scored at the rim. He’s done it against some great competition. Again, the teams that we’re playing, they don’t leave with a lot of fool’s gold of ‘OK if you do it against this school how is it going to work when we play against those high-major Pac-12 teams.’”
Randolph has upped his 3-point percentage to 47.4 in recent weeks. Miller said the key for him moving forward is improving defensively.
“Where to be, how to do it, playing against some of the most physical players on the other team and being able to guard them so his offense isn’t negated,” he said. “That’s no fault of his. He’s young. He should have a lot of room for growth and it’s up to us to get him there."
Rotation will hopefully be settled in time for Pac-12 play
Miller said Rawle Alkins might start Saturday at New Mexico in place of Randolph (our full story about that can be found here), as Arizona continues to figure out its rotation.
“We don’t have it totally figured out, because if you’ve traded places with me, you’ve watched Rawle practice five times and play 22 minutes in one game,” Miller said. “So we know Rawle, but how it all fits together, what’s going to bring out the best in our team, I think some of it is we have to keep going. We have to keep going, we have to keep watching, making sure we’re closely monitoring who deserves and who plays well together.
“Same thing with substitutions. It’s one thing to get somebody in a game, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to allow them to get in the game and play with some confidence. We have to figure it out. There’s no team in the country that plays everybody.”
When asked if he uses stats like net rating and plus/minus when determining lineup combinations like NBA teams widely do, Miller said he has studied those numbers and has gotten input from NBA players and coaches, but cautioned those stats can’t be used the same way in college because of the differences in the game (the length of the season, game times, court size, less experienced players, etc.).
“We don’t look at that as much but we’re trying to find who works well with the next person, but in college (your best lineup) should be your starting group,” he said. “… Because you think that they’re most functioning, talented group that you can put out there at the tip.”
Miller said he hopes to have Arizona’s rotation settled by the start of Pac-12 play. It will probably feature eight players and I analyzed who should and should not be in it, which you can read here.
Three things New Mexico does well
With a 3-7 record and without its best player, New Mexico is a pretty lackluster team, but Miller pointed out three things the Lobos do well: force turnovers, have an uptempo offense that shoots a lot of 3s (even if they don’t shoot a high percentage), and play a unique defense that emphasizes pressing and switching.
Oh, and a rowdy fanbase, too.
“We’re Arizona. Everyone’s going to give us their best shot,” Lee said. “It’s going to be a packed house, but at the same time those are the games we look for.”
Saturday’s tip-off in Albuquerque is set for 6 p.m. MST on CBS Sports Network.
We will have more on New Mexico in the next two days. Our notebook from Miller’s radio show can be found here, which includes notes about Arizona’s rotation, PJC’s 3-point shooting, and more.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire