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Notebook: On Arizona’s pace, the Ristic & Ayton pairing, defensive breakdowns, Akot’s knees, and more

Notes and quotes from Sean Miller’s Thursday presser

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

If you hadn’t heard already, Rawle Alkins is set to make his season debut for the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

That was certainly the big news Thursday (and you can see our full story here), but here are more notes, quotes, and tidbits from Sean Miller’s press conference.

Arizona looking for balance offensively, but not equality

Arizona played at its slowest pace of the season in its win over No. 7 Texas A&M, tallying just 67 possessions. The Wildcats want to push the ball, but don’t necessarily want to force the issue.

“If you shoot quick, you better have a lot more talent than the other team, game in and game out,” Miller said. “The shots that are quick that you get better be good because, especially playing on the road, it’s very difficult to be successful. It’s very difficult to be consistent. That doesn’t mean we want to walk the ball up, but pace is all relative. You have to play at a pace where the shots you take are good ones. If you have a quick one great, we’ll always take that.”

“There is a balance,” Miller continued. “It was one of the many lessons we learned here where maybe as we entered the Bahamas we felt better about playing at a faster speed, not worrying as much about who had the ball. Coming out of the Bahamas, we clearly knew there was a significant difference. I think we’re still not there recognizing who should shoot, who should not, and who needs to touch the ball every time down.”

Miller said Arizona isn’t running an “equal-opportunity” offense.

“There are extreme differences among the five players that are out there on offense. It’s up to each player to clearly understand what I mean by that,” Miller said. “Who should get the ball, who should shoot the ball, and to be able to shoot in the first two or three passes and play fast, that means a lot of shots are going up by a lot of different people.

“So we want to strike in transition, we certainly want to be fast into what we do and we have to have a good push. The furthest thing from the truth is that we want to walk the ball up, but I think the shot selection, the turnovers, the faster you play, the more turnovers you have, the more you have decisions being made on the run. All of that has to factor in. ... It’s no different in football. You play an ultra-fast offense, it puts a lot more pressure on the defense. Basketball is the same way. You’re playing against really good coaches, organized teams on offense that have good players.”

Miller made it clear that Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton are the team’s top two options, and he thinks Alkins will be a reliable third option once he gets up to speed.

“It’s not that the other guys can’t play, it’s just on this particular team at this moment, everybody has to know who they are,” he said.

Ayton & Ristic

Dusan Ristic said playing alongside fellow 7-footer Deandre Ayton on defense has been challenging, but he likes their combination of skills.

“I have never played with a player like Deandre before, a player with his size, strength, skills so it’s going to take some time to get used to playing with each other,” Ristic said. “But I’m pretty confident this point on that we’re just going to keep improving."

Opponents have found success using small, quick lineups when Arizona uses Ristic and Ayton concurrently.

Ayton has been tested extensively defensively this season, having to guard stretch 4s, wings, and then, against Texas A&M, a traditional big man in Robert Williams.

“That’s a tough task for a young, big guy, but Deandre is 7-feet tall. His mobility isn’t in question, it’s just him understanding the know-how,” Miller said. “He’s working hard everyday and asking him to (play both center and power forward) will bring out the best in him and it will also bring out the best in our team, because having those two guys (Ayton and Ristic) in the game at the same time really gives us an advantage on offense.

“Just like how I’m describing how we have to match up with the other team, every time that we have those two guys in, a small four-man has to match up with one of those two.”

Miller said Arizona has to be “ultra-smart” when playing Ristic and Ayton at the same time, presumably referring to the Wildcats’ pace and shot selection.

“We cannot act as if we’re just a normal team,” he said. “You have two 7-footers that can score around the basket, we have to take advantage of that.”

Arizona did against A&M — Ristic and Ayton both scored 13 points in the win. It was the fourth time this season they both scored in double figures in the same game.

“Long, long ways to go” on defense

Miller said Tuesday that Arizona turned in its best defensive performance of the season against Texas A&M. But on Thursday he said the team still has “long, long ways” to go in that area.

“But we’re better than we were in the Bahamas. That I know,” Miller said. “We’ve made incremental improvement, but we have two more days of practice (before Alabama) so when we practice that’s on the top of the list.”

Arizona currently ranks 213th (of 351) in college basketball in defensive efficiency.

“We’re working hard, but sometimes it starts with the oldest guys. Guys like Dusan, Allonzo (Trier), and Parker (Jackson-Cartwright), we’re really counting on those three guys to set the tone early in games, to do it every day in practice so that our younger guys learn from them and be the most ready that they can.

“There’s a reason those three players start the game. The responsibility is to be a good defender themselves and part of our improvement is for those guys to take ownership in that area. They did a better job in the last two games than they have all season long."

Ristic not happy with post defense

Ristic said he was disappointed how he defended Tyler Davis on the low-block on Tuesday. The A&M big man had 21 points on 9-12 shooting.

“They set a lot of ball screens and after those ball screens, we always say we have to do second job and second job is defending the low post,” he said.

“... That’s something I wasn’t happy with after the game, but I will correct it, 100 percent."

Miller thought Ristic was “very solid” defensively against both UNLV and Texas A&M.

“Dusan just has to use his gifts. His gifts are his size and his discipline,” Miller said. “Sometimes a guy might score over him, but when you’re 7-1, it’s going to work against that player as well.”

Miller said the key for Ristic is “being in the right position the most often he can be.”

“Dusan is probably more talented on offense than he is defensively, but we’re really counting on him to be solid,” he said.

“I’ve never seen a breakdown like we had ever in my life”

Arizona got burned badly on out-of-bounds plays a few times against the Aggies. On one play, Dylan Smith got caught around a screen which led to a layup.

On another, well, one Arizona player just didn’t match up.

“I’ve never seen a breakdown like we had ever in my life,” Miller said. “... They didn’t run a play, we just didn’t match up. The referee gave the guy the ball, nobody was guarding the guy on the right block and they threw it to him and he shot it. Then they executed a couple times on curls and caught it, but the first one is just responsibility. You can’t play college basketball at Arizona if you can’t matchup on an out-of-bounds play.

“The second part is those are the little details that add up to winning and losing. And if you lose the game like the one we were just in, you point to those two things.”

Miller also said Arizona had a couple turnovers in which an Arizona player simply didn’t see a defender “running full speed to steal the ball.”

“That’s really where our team is. There’s some youth, there’s some where we just have to get better,” Miller said. “For example, Rawle would match up on that out-of-bounds play. And I think that if he saw a guy running like a train to steal the ball, he’d probably look at him, pass fake, and not throw it.

“Those are errors that experience takes care of and quality of play, but we have to get over those types of things. Those are self-inflicted plays that don’t allow us to win against the best teams. We did a lot of great things against Texas A&M. That was one area that we’ll deal with over the next couple days. Then it becomes, ‘are we going to be better against Alabama in that area?’ And if that’s the case, that’s part of what you learn in non-conference play."

Akot’s knees are “making progress”

Miller said Emmanuel Akot is “making progress” in his bout with knee tendinitis. The freshman has played just 10 minutes in the last three games.

“He has to get both of his legs stronger,” Miller said. “It’s chronic. .. If you remember the Purdue game, he had one of his best games at Arizona against SMU where I thought his effort was great and he defended, but the next game, he wasn’t able to play. He could only play a couple minutes because he couldn’t run.

“So that’s certainly affected him, but he’s a young player with a bright future and it doesn’t mean he won’t play this year. We’re counting on all our guys but I think a big part for Emmanuel is continuing to grow and get better."

Ristic surprised by GCU fan support

Ristic was one of several UA players who thanked GCU fans for their support during the Texas A&M game, though he was admittedly surprised they were pulling for Arizona.

“I heard they have a really good atmosphere at their games. I’ve never seen them in person,” Ristic said. “I loved the last moments of the game. They helped us a lot and especially with Texas A&M shooting free throws. That’s something that’s really nice, especially with them being from Phoenix and we’re from Tucson. That kind of local support is really good for us."

GCU fans distracted A&M free throw shooters down the stretch and high fived the Wildcats after their win.

Why did Lopes fans support the Wildcats? Our Tony Capobianco believes it stems from a mutual disdain for ASU. Check out his column here.

Thanks, Nike

Arizona wore its white and copper uniforms on Tuesday, a dividing look among Wildcat fans. Miller said Thursday that the team isn’t required to wear certain uniform combinations, but...

“I think they expect us to wear each one,” he said. “They treat our program really well and they have for decades. The fact they treat us like that and give us those types of uniforms is exciting for our players. They, in some ways, they like to mix it up themselves. Pick and choose.”

In the least surprising development ever, Miller said he really doesn’t care what Arizona wears.

“I just want our guys to wear the same color socks. We finally have everyone locked in on the same color shoes. As long as that’s the case, then I’m good,” he said. “It’s so much more about being ready to play the game than those other things."

Sexton questionable?

Alabama star point guard Collin Sexton suffered an eye injury Wednesday, but Miller said he hopes he plays Saturday.

"He's one of the most exciting players in college basketball,” Miller said. “... Great talent. Tremendous competitor."

We will have more on Alabama tomorrow.

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire