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Arizona basketball: Wildcats improving at attacking zone defenses

The Wildcats still look lost at times, though

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The word has spread, if it hadn’t already.

If you want to slow down the Arizona Wildcats’ offense, play zone defense.

“The coaching staff is realizing that every team is mostly likely going to play zone against us at first,” UA big man Chance Comanche said, “until we pull them out of it.”

Even teams that rarely ever play zone defense, like Stanford, break it out when they face the Wildcats.

And rightfully so — Arizona has trouble consistently attacking them.

“Sometimes we have those moments where we attack it every play and sometimes we become more passive in general and start forgetting what to do against the zone to make the game easier for us,” Comanche said.

The Wildcats know it’s a problem, and they are trying fix it.

“We’re working on it,” UA head coach Sean Miller said. “We know teams are zoning us, so it’s not as if we’re going to walk out there and be surprised.”

Sometimes it looks like they are surprised, though, and Miller says it’s mostly a product of the team’s youth.

“One of the things I remind myself of is we have a lot of young players playing,” he said. “I know those guys have been playing all year but end-of-game situations, playing against different zones, it’s not as if we have a ton of experience out there and sometimes we show that. But our guys are getting better.”

They are getting better because, as Comanche said, Arizona works on its zone offense “a lot” in practice. Which is needed for a team in which five of its nine rotation players are sophomores or freshmen.

“The more that you work on things, the more that you teach and coach the youngest players that are out there .... the more they have the opportunity to learn and see,” Miller said.

One area Comanche said the team has improved is recognizing when teams have switched their defensive alignment during the game.

“Coach shows us film about that, so we’re starting to get better at understanding,” he said. “We can see it more now and the coaches don’t have to tell us as much. They still let us know, but we can see it without their help as much.”

Miller was encouraged by the progress his team showed last week in the sweep of the Bay Area schools.

“We did a really good job of attacking Cal’s zone, we actually did a very good job of attacking Stanford’s zone and they’re two different types,” Miller said. “The thing about Stanford’s zone is that we had some unforced turnovers. But if you took our turnovers away, we executed against both of those zones and I think we’re really on the upswing to being more comfortable as a team and that’s our responsibility as a coaching staff.”

For the season, the Wildcats have an offensive rating — the number of points scored per 100 possessions — of 111.8.

Against Stanford on Wednesday, their offensive rating was 107.2. Against Cal it was 103.3.

Arizona offense was still producing below its norm, however its performance against Cal is nothing to scoff at. The Bears are holding teams to an offensive rating of 93.3 this season, and the Wildcats scored at a much more efficient rate than that.

A sign of progress? Miller thinks so.

“You don’t want a team to be comfortable against certain defenses and not others, but we took as step in the right direction this week and I think that will only continue as we move forward,” he said.

The Wildcats will be tested by zone defenses again this week when they play Washington State and Washington on the road.

Miller says Washington’s zone is similar to Cal’s, while Washington State’s is more of a matchup zone.

“I wouldn’t say any of [the zone defenses] are tougher than others,” Comanche said. “It’s all based on how we play against it.”

Kobi Simmons is one Wildcat Miller has singled out for getting better at attacking a zone defense.

Against Cal, the freshman scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting, and dished out three assists.

“This is one of the best games that he’s played, and that’s a real credit to him,” Miller said Saturday. “We needed him tonight and he delivered tonight. Three assists and no turnovers, he was confident against the zone in the first half and that’s something we’ve been talking to him about and he made big plays.”

A few days earlier, Simmons only played 19 minutes against Stanford because Miller thought he was unsure against the Cardinal’s zone, making his bounce-back performance against Cal “great to see”, according to Miller.

“He was really comfortable and confident against the zone and made big, big plays,” Miller said. “He got the ball inside, had a drive in the second half, hit a 3. He was ready to go.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire