If the 27-point loss to Oregon last Saturday was supposed to serve as a wake-up call for the Arizona Wildcats, they responded by hitting the snooze button and falling back to sleep.
The Wildcats were able to get back into the win column Wednesday with a 74-67 win over the Stanford Cardinal, but familiar problems arose for them in what was a rather uninspiring performance.
For one, Arizona, armed with three 7-footers, was outmuscled in the paint. Again.
Stanford’s frontcourt duo of Reid Travis and Michael Humphrey combined for 34 points and 21 rebounds, while Arizona’s starting frontcourt of Dusan Ristic and Lauri Markkanen combined for just 12 points and eight rebounds.
Travis and Reid helped generate 17 second-chance points for the Cardinal, too, as they encountered little resistance under the rim.
“That might be understated,” UA head coach Sean Miller said of Stanford’s 12 offensive rebounds. “We have big guys that aren’t blocking out and it’s not about your offense. It’s about you have to hit your man in the chest. You gotta turn. You gotta keep people off the glass. And the same thing with guards. Guards have a responsibility to rebound and when you let teams get 17 second-chance points, it really puts a lot of pressure on your ability to win.”
Glancing at the stat sheet, it looks like Arizona’s defense turned in a solid performance. Stanford shot just 42 percent from the field and 4-17 from 3.
Yet, because the Wildcats had difficulty finishing off possessions, the Cardinal still averaged one point per possession.
“We had too many times where we made them miss the first time — that’s hard enough. When you have an offensive team that’s really in sync and working hard to create good opportunities and they shoot and miss, when they get second shots, it breaks your back,” Miller said.
Arizona’s second problem is that it could not stop dribble penetration.
Miller said the Wildcats have a “number of players” that can’t guard their man, though he didn’t specially mention which ones (he did say he thought Parker Jackson-Cartwright defended well, however).
“I just know that it’s one guy after another that’s being beaten off the dribble and we have to solve it,” Miller said. “You can only help so much. The more you try to help off the ball, the more it leads to 3-point shots, which happened a couple times. The more it leads to offensive rebounds and that was part of the problem. But it’s the determination, it has to be really important and if you don’t guard the basketball, then you’re not going to play. The guys that are in the game, if they do that better, that’s the group we have to go with for sure.”
Stanford guard Marcus Allen took advantage of the Wildcats’ turnstile defense, as he finished with 15 points, 12 of which came on layups alone.
“He’s a straight line driver, he had six layups,” Miller said. “The best teams in the country aren’t going to give up straight line drives and I think we had a number of players give that up. That’s a real focus for us moving forward.”
Arizona led by as many as 12 points in the second half, but Stanford wound up tying the game twice in the final 2 1⁄2 minutes.
Ultimately, the Wildcats were able to avoid disaster and escape with the victory, but the game should not have been that close. After all, this was the same team Arizona beat by 39 earlier in the year.
“I would say we had Stanford about three or four times in the game at the 10-point mark ... and we were about a possession or two away from being able to take that lead to 13 or 15, but we never were able to do it because we either got beat off the dribble or we gave up the second shot,” Miller said.
Which shouldn’t happen to a team with a roster that is littered with pro potential.
Or is it?
“The word pro is thrown around too much at Arizona because of the great history of our program,” Miller said. “We have guys who think they are NBA players but they can’t guard the ball. Not only are you not getting picked, you’re not getting invited to camp.
“Just because Richard Jefferson got picked doesn’t mean you’re getting picked.”
Or that Arizona can expect to beat the California Golden Bears on Saturday if it doesn’t correct some of its issues.
“We’ve built up a lot of equity by the season that we’ve had, but tonight, the effort level rebounding, the irresponsibility rebounding, and the number of guys who just can’t guard the ball, it allows us to be vulnerable,” Miller said.
“And you know what, Cal is a great basketball team. They’re playing really well. And they’re the type of the team that will come in here and smash us all over the floor.”
Leave it up to Chance
Markkanen and Ristic had issues defending and keeping Stanford’s frontcourt off the glass, but luckily for the Wildcats, they had a third option to turn to in Chance Comanche.
The 6-foot-11 big man had 11 points and six rebounds in 22 minutes, and his length and quickness proved to be more effective against Travis and Humphrey than the size of Markkanen and Ristic.
“We wouldn’t have won today if Chance didn’t play the way he played,” Miller said. “He probably gave up a couple second shots as well, but every guy on our team did. He had six defensive rebounds.”
Comanche finished with a team-best +18 plus-minus, while Markkanen and Ristic finished -8 and -3, respectively.
Comanche also shot 7-of-8 from the free throw line, with most of them being made down the final stretch of the game.
“You talk about clutch free throws, he went to the line under the four-minute mark and really hit some big, big free throws,” Miller said. “Dusan has been great for us, but tonight wasn’t his night. He’s been as consistent as any big guy that we’ve had and they did a really good job on him and he didn’t score. He had one field goal, we’re not used to that, but Chance stepped up and I think that’s what a good team has — different players on different nights that can step up.”
In the zone
Attacking zone defenses has been a problem for this Arizona team
since dinosaurs lived in McKale Center at times, but that is far from the team’s biggest issue heading into Saturday’s game against Cal.
The Cardinal used a 3-2 zone against the Wildcats on Wednesday, and while Arizona’s shooting percentages weren’t stellar, Miller believes his team generated good looks against it.
Arizona shot 43 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3.
“We did a much better job against their zone,” Miller said. “Judging it as a coach, you have to judge the possessions that you get a good shot and miss. We had a couple really good shots that we didn’t make. We drew fouls. Lauri hit a big, big 3 in the left corner. I thought we moved the ball, shared the ball, and our attack against the zone, the way we handled the zone was a big reason that we won the game.”
How the Wildcats handle zone defense will likely be a key for Saturday’s game as well. The Golden Bears, usually a man-to-man team, deployed a zone defense in their win over ASU on Wednesday, possibly foreshadowing their strategy against the Wildcats.
Not that Arizona would be caught off guard.
“We feel like every team from now on is going to try to play a zone on us, whether it’s a matchup zone or a regular zone and we’re just playing through that and working on it in practice,” UA guard Rawle Alkins said.
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