Things are good for the Arizona Wildcats right now.
They are healthy, they have moved up to 14th in the polls, they have won eight straight games, including a marquee victory over then-No. 3 ASU, and they have a softening schedule coming up.
So that three-game losing streak in the Bahamas feels like a long time ago, right?
“Not too long,” said UA guard Dylan Smith. “[Sean Miller] reminds us of it everyday. He’ll never forget that.”
When Arizona got back from that trip, Smith said, the Wildcats “went back to the drawing board,” trying to find ways to right their wrongs, most of which were on defense.
“It was just chalking things back up when we got back and getting better and using it as a learning experience,” he said.
So far, Arizona has done a good job of that.
The Wildcats were once in the 60s in college basketball in defensive efficiency, but they have gradually moved up to 54th, according to KenPom’s metrics.
Yes, Miller constantly reminds UA’s players about that stat, too.
“He talks about that everyday,” Smith said. “[We’re] not just jumping from 50 to 10, but I think everyday we’re slowly progressing.”
The Wildcats have turned in some of their best defensive performances in the last three games. They are allowing roughly one point per possession on the season, but opponents haven’t been able to reach that mark lately.
North Dakota State only scored 82.8 points per 100 possessions against the Wildcats. UConn was at 84.1 and even ASU’s high-powered offense, which averages 121 points per 100 possessions, only had an offensive rating of 98.7 in Tucson.
“We’re in the 50s in terms of where we are defensively in the nation. That’s not good enough, but we were certainly heading in the wrong direction from there at one point,” Miller said. “We’ve improved to be where we’re at and it’ll be interesting to see if we sustain that or move up. My hope is that we continue to move up. We’re working on it really hard every day. Our practices, it’s not as if we’re not talking about it, working on it, showing guys film. We have some talented players. As they focus on that, I think they’ll continue to improve."
Arizona’s improvement on defense always seemed like a certainly because of the number of young players it has, but Smith did acknowledge that the Wildcats play harder now than they did in the Bahamas.
That was once Miller’s biggest gripe about his team — the UA head coach called his team’s effort “terrible” after a 35-point win vs. Long Beach State on Nov. 29.
“Not necessarily that we didn’t play hard in the Bahamas, but it’s just more playing to win and not playing not to lose,” Smith said. “In the Bahamas we played not to lose.”
A few Wildcats have mentioned that their communication on defense has improved. Returning the boisterous Rawle Alkins has helped a great deal, and so has the unwavering leadership of senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
“He’s like a coach on the bench,” Smith said. “He’s always talking, making sure guys are in the right place even if he’s not in the game. His voice is much-needed on the team because a lot of guys don’t understand the important of communication. Not like all the time, but sometimes guys go quiet.”
While the Wildcats’ defense has progressed and it has spurred them to eight straight wins, they still have a lot to clean up before they can truly be in the national championship conversation.
The worst defensive team to win a national title in the KenPom era (since 2001-02) was North Carolina in 2009. They ranked 18th on defense by season’s end.
That’s a long way from 54th.
“Everyone can be better. You can’t be too good at defense,” Smith said.
“There’s a lot of things as far as breakdowns, not fouling, stuff like that (that we have to work on). Just growing as a team. We’re a young team. We have a lot we need to get better at. But the sky’s the limit for us.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire