The Arizona Wildcats faced zone defense last Saturday at Colorado, again Thursday against Oregon State, and will see it once more this Saturday against the Oregon Ducks.
Probably several times after that, too. And they know that.
“I thought last year, toward the end of the year, people were saying Arizona’s weakness is zone,” said UA guard Rawle Alkins. “So I thought in the summer that’s all we really prepared for was the zone. And right now we’re getting back to it. We’re starting to see zone a lot more than we have been.”
And Arizona’s offense is suffering as a result. The Wildcats scored 77 points against Colorado, but on 38 percent shooting. Then Arizona scored just 62 points against Oregon State, shooting 42 percent.
The Wildcats’ free throw numbers are down, and the number of 3s they are taking is up, showing their tendency of settling for low-percentage perimeter jumpers.
The first half of Arizona’s win over Oregon State was its worst offensive performance yet.
Arizona shot 38 percent from the field, 2-11 from 3, took just one free throw, and had nine turnovers, as it mustered just 21 points on 32 possessions — barely 0.6 points per possession, a far cry from the 1.1 mark the Wildcats were averaging entering the game.
“We haven’t seen a ton of zone. A lot of teams have sprinkled it in. Oregon State’s a team that plays predominantly zone and we’re not the only team that’s going to go through tough patches against it,” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller.
“They don’t have a point guard right now, so they’re playing big. That doesn’t always work to their advantage on offense, but they’re a high steal team, deflections, shot blocks.”
The Beavers, statistically, have been the best defensive team in the Pac-12 since conference play started, allowing 94.8 points per 100 possessions.
So Miller figured it was going to take some time for Arizona to get comfortable against them.
“Every team that has to play Oregon State has to adjust,” Miller said. “You can’t lose your patience, you can’t become frustrated, you just have to stick with it. For the most part we did a good job of that.”
Indeed, Arizona shot 45 percent in the second half, 4-10 from 3, 11-15 from the free throw line, and had just two turnovers — 1.2 points per possession, in all.
That improvement allowed Arizona to avoid what would have been a disastrous home loss.
The Wildcats trailed by one at the half and even by five in the second half at one point, before their offense exploded in the final eight minutes or so as they finished on a 16-3 run en route to a 62-53 victory.
“It was a tale of two halves for us in many ways, especially on offense,” Miller said. “In the second half, our defense sparked our offense. But we adjusted to their zone a little bit easier. You can practice, you can prepare, but until you get into the game, you don’t realize the size they have and how well they can communicate.
“They do a really good job. That’s why their numbers through the first three games have been so outstanding on defense. They are very committed to that matchup zone. They know what they’re doing and they do it well.”
One concerning stat is Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic only had eight shots a piece, despite having an obvious size advantage on the low block.
“In the first half, we were standing, we weren’t moving the ball as well,” Miller said. “We certainly didn’t get it inside as well and that’s reflected in the fact we had 21 points.”
After that dismal first half, Miller said he was anxious to see how Arizona would respond in the final 20 minutes.
“This is a big week for us and that was a big moment,” he said of his team’s second-half outburst. “Could we break a game open and stay with it. Can we improve a little bit on offense? Parker Jackson-Cartwright had a turnover late which was uncharacteristic of him. But I believe we had nine turnovers at the half. So we really played with [three] in the second half.
“So part of the answer to the question of how we attacked the zone, a big difference was just our turnovers. We moved the ball easier in the second half, and I think that will be a sign of things to come.”
Oregon, which upset ASU in Tempe on Thursday, will put that theory to test Saturday.
“They’re gonna play matchup zone,” Miller said. “They’re going to press and hopefully tonight is a great test for us to get ready for that game.”
One would think Miller would have been unhappy after Thursday’s game, seeing his team trailed an average Oregon State team for nearly 30 minutes, but he was not.
After all, Arizona had turned in one of its best defensive performances all season.
Oregon State shot just 43 percent from the field and turned the ball over 15 times. The Beavers averaged roughly 0.8 points per possession, the lowest mark an opponent has posted against Arizona since November.
“That’s as hard as we’ve played. It’s not really my opinion,” Miller said. “You look out there and you see things happen, and guys are really helping each other, pressuring the ball. Steals are happening. Some of their turnovers were because of us and it was good to see. Our defensive effort and our consistent effort broke the game open.”
Which is a lesson learned — that good defensive teams can win even when their offense has an unusually rough night.
That was not the case for Arizona last Saturday when it allowed Colorado to shoot 55 percent as the Wildcats struggled with the Buffs’ zone.
“I thought we played a lot harder from start to finish,” Alkins said. “Defense wins games, especially in March. What’s going to happen when you’re having a tough shooting night like we had in the first half? In order to stay in the game, I thought we showed that we played can play great defense. ... In the Colorado game, we didn’t play as good enough defense.”
Miller called out his team’s effort after that Colorado game, and evidently they received the message.
“It was what I had hoped for,” Miller said of UA’s defense vs. the Beavers. “We’re a team that’s really practicing hard. We’ve had four really hard practices coming off of the Colorado game and sometimes that’s what you need — an opportunity to learn. And there’s no better learning opportunity than when you fail. And we lost a game to a team that played very well on that particular day. We didn’t feel good about our effort. You try to correct it, it’s not going to from level three to level 10, and in my mind we took steps forward.”
Arizona may have won in ugly, low-scoring fashion against Oregon State, but Miller presumably sees that as a better outcome than trading baskets in a high-scoring affair.
“If you’re only interested in offense and the ball has to go in, you gotta get 85 (points) every night, there are going to be a couple conference games you’re just going to lose because there’s great familiarity, (and opposing) teams are playing their heart out,” he said.
“For our team to be the best we can, we have to be have to the hardest-playing team we can and we’re learning that.”
Arizona’s bench continued its struggles, only tallying five points on 2-10 shooting against the Beavers.
Ira Lee three points, two rebounds, and two blocks.
Brandon Randolph was 1-7 from the floor, but did have four assists, three rebounds, and three steals.
Dylan Smith (12 minutes) and Emmanuel Akot (three minutes) both went scoreless, and Alex Barcello and Keanu Pinder did not play at all.
“We did a couple good things. Brandon had three steals, but our group coming off the bench is better offensively than that,” Miller said. “And we need everybody, so our continued development — not just with our starters but the guys who don’t start — is really important.
“A big part of our team’s development is our bench — to get guys to make good plays. To get guys out there for an extended period of time and keep this thing going.”
Alkins made SportsCenter’s Top 10 with this gravity-defying dunk in the second half.
Rawle Alkins just did something that you usually only see in dunk contests pic.twitter.com/3zWAxbw75e— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) January 12, 2018
“I had a lot of adrenaline and before I got hurt that used to be my favorite dunk,” he said.
Arizona scored 20 points off Oregon State’s turnovers, which helped greatly since UA struggled to score in the halfcourt.
As Alkins said, “the best offense is good defense.”
“I think when we have that going for us — stops, consecutive stops, a team working together — it’s going to be better for our offense,” Miller said. “So the more improved we are defensively, believe it or not that will help our offense. And we haven’t a lot of problems offensively throughout this year. Most of our problems have come on the other side.”
The only player on Arizona’s roster that was able to hit from the perimeter Thursday was Allonzo Trier.
The junior had 21 points and made four of nine 3-point attempts. The rest of the Wildcats were 2-12 from distance.
“His numbers are amazing,” Miller said. “If you look at him through 17 games, he’s shooting over 50 percent from the field, over 40 percent from 3, over 80 percent from foul line. He did all three of those tonight.”
Still, Trier continued his trend of having an uneventful first half followed by a tremendous second half.
Trier scored 15 of his 21 points in the final 20 minutes.
“He had a quiet 21, but I think we have to help him get a couple of better looks in the first eight to 12 minutes of the game,” Miller said.
“He’s become good at letting the game come to him and now it’s up to our staff to be able to trigger a few shots where he can get some early looks to maybe get him and our team going. Once again his second half was better than his first and that’s really been his pattern all year.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire