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Sean Miller trying to get Arizona to ‘reach our potential’

“But how can you really reach your potential when you don’t have consistent effort for 40 minutes?”

Missouri v Arizona

After two days of reflecting on the Arizona Wildcats’ loss to the Colorado Buffaloes, Sean Miller’s thoughts on the debacle hadn’t changed.

His team struggles to play with effort and he is having trouble fixing that. There is no way around it.

“I really feel that way today,” Miller said Monday at his weekly presser, affirming the comments he made in Boulder on Saturday.

That is ... not exactly ideal with Pac-12 play in full swing and the Oregon schools coming to town this week.

“I feel this is a big moment in our season,” Miller said. “Not because the world is falling or caving in around us, as much as it is that we have to be able to establish high effort.

“I don’t want to diminish Colorado’s effort because they beat us, they were the better team. But that’s part of what I’m talking about: our effort didn’t really match theirs, especially in the first half.

“I thought we made some strides in the second half, we just didn’t in the first half as a group, as a team, and it really stands out with our defense. Our defense is falling. I think we’re maybe No. 75 (in the country). The last two years we were really top-30 — more towards 30 than 10 — and we complained about it. We fought hard to be an even better defensive team.

“Part of what you learn in conference play is there are going to be those times when you get in foul trouble, you have an opportunity to make open shots and miss. I thought we had some good inside shots against Colorado that we normally make, but we didn’t. And you have to be able to offset those nights with togetherness on the defensive end but really run hard, play hard, and giving your best. It’s disappointing that we weren’t good in that area, and we have to fix it. That’s all. It’s not that everything is caving in around us, it’s so much more about where we go from here.”

But why is Arizona’s effort an issue? Is it overconfidence? Do the players not like the coach? Is the roster too young? Are there outside distractions?

“It could be all those things,” Miller said. “It’s a collection of reasons and know this — I’m not grading guys right now on ‘he doesn’t care, he doesn’t try.’ That’s not what I’m saying. I’m trying to hold our team accountable to ‘we are a hard-playing team’ and we’ll live with the results.

“I will tell you this, and maybe not a lot of people talk about it, but it’s not an easy thing to establish in particular when you have a lot of change. And in college basketball from one season to the next, you go through wholesale change. So the culture that you have in place that maybe you have a year ago where this wasn’t as much of an issue, maybe that’s the case. But you have to remember all the different guys that have left and how many new faces we have. It’s a whole new collection of leadership. It’s a whole new collection of young players. It’s a brand new season. So just because it worked and we had that in place a year or two ago doesn’t mean that we have it in place now.

“I’ll also tell you that I don’t believe that we’re the only team in the country here in the beginning of conference play that has this. It’s just a matter of how you choose to handle it. And we’re going to work and fight and scratch and claw to give great effort. If we don’t win — and we’ve had plenty of games where we don’t win when we have that consistent effort — then we’ll move on, but I think the bigger point to that is we’ll keep improving, keep heading in the right direction and we’ll eventually become the team we all think we can be.”

Senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, often lauded as the team’s leader, took some of the blame for Arizona’s lackluster performance vs. Colorado, saying he could have done a better job setting the tone.

“I think anybody watching the game could have told that we weren’t playing hard,” he said. “And I think this is a function of us as players. We have to do a much better job of coming out and playing with a chip on our shoulder and not taking any team for granted.”

Miller said the burden falls on Arizona’s entire starting five which was benched toward the end of the first half.

“I can make the case that if you’re one of the five starters … isn’t it your responsibility to establish that this is how we play, to give great effort, to set the tone for the younger players and those that don’t start the game?” he said.

“And we’ve done it. We’ve had plenty of games where we’ve done it. We’ve had plenty of games — almost every game — where a portion of that 40 minutes we’ve played (hard), but I think the defensive numbers that we have right now through 16 games are as much of direct reflection of how hard we play all the time than it is do we know what to do or our ability level.

“Maybe best we can be is a top-50 defensive team. I aspire to get our team to that number. And to get there, the first that has to be in place is that we’re playing as hard as we possibly can. Unquestioned effort, and we’re working hard at what we do.

“I would say this about our team: we practice well. That’s a whole ‘nother issue. Sometimes what you do everyday matters and we’ve really practiced very consistently. But the other day at Colorado, we had a quick turnaround, we had a big win at Salt Lake City (against Utah), then had a noon game, an early game. That’s not an easy trip for any team. And [we faced] a really inspired Colorado team that played well. Maybe we weren’t going to win anyway, but we certainly contributed to our demise by the first half that we played. We were so fortunate to be down 16 points (at halftime). We could have been down 25 points easily. I think Colorado would know that as well watching the film.”

In the grand scheme of things, splitting the Rocky Mountain road trip is generally considered a positive outcome for Pac-12 teams. But Miller has his focus on how the Wildcats performed, not just the final score, so he isn’t satisfied.

“I didn’t think we would go 18-0 in the Pac-12,” he said. “We lost to Colorado, it’s over with. We split the road trip. When I first came to Arizona, it was you split your road trips and try to win every game at home and you’ll be right there as a contender for a conference championship.

“So far that’s the path that we’ve gone down. We’ll see this week, but I’m not really judging our team on the result of the game as much as how we did. If we would’ve played lights out and played with tremendous effort and energy and made a lot of plays, dove on the floor, were ready at the tip and lost, I think that’s a whole different feeling than when you look at the first half.

“I think anybody watches the game would say ‘they’re better than that.’”

They are — or at least can be — which is why Jackson-Cartwright doesn’t think the sky-is-falling reaction some Arizona fans had after the loss was unjustified.

“I don’t think it’s an overreaction at all, especially the way we played,” he said. “There should be some reaction. There should be some concern because we’re judged on our standard. We have high expectations for ourselves as players and the coaching staff. I think from that standpoint, there’s some concern because we didn’t play hard. And we should always have that in place.”

Miller acknowledged that not every season is perfect, and every team has its “pockets.” But how deep will they go?

“You have your moments,” he said. “I’ll go back a couple years ago. When T.J. McConnell was a senior and Stanley Johnson was a freshman and we had Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) … we had a terrific team. If you look at the games that we lost that year, I think we lost regular season teams to non-NCAA Tournament teams. We lost at UNLV, we were distracted before we left for Christmas break. We lost late in the season to Arizona State, and we lost at Oregon State. And that was part of trying to get the best out of that team, that we were that group that when we thought it was easy, we didn’t play to the level that we were capable of.

“That was only three losses the entire regular season, but we finally found our [stride] and we ended up being right where we should have been: on the threshold of a Final Four. So with this year, it’s too early. We’re a work in progress. We’re in it right now. There was a lot written about our Bahamas experience but remember, we won nine games in a row — an entire month and didn’t lose and we played some good teams.

“So now that we’ve gone through this game here at Colorado, it’s so much more about where we go from here and how ready we can be. Can we learn and grow and get better from it? And just because we lose (another) game doesn’t mean our guys don’t play hard. We may lose a game in the future because we had 20 turnovers. But our defense and lapses that happened against Colorado — lack of concentration, lack of effort, lack of detail — that’s not my opinion, that’s fact. That happened.”

And correcting those mental lapses can be difficult for coaches, even more so than it for them to draw up an effective inbounds play or make the right substitution.

"You have to understand that players believing in themselves, believing in what we do, understanding their role, guys having confidence, guys playing with effort, that’s as big of a part of what we do (as coaches) as what play you run. Probably much bigger, being truthful,” Miller said.

“Getting guys’ minds right on a basketball team is not an easy thing. You can be winning and you could have one guy that’s really unhappy. You could have a couple players who aren’t playing a lot (who are) unhappy. You can have things that are distracting them, so yeah, it’s a part of our everyday (challenge as coaches).”

Miller added: “Certainly I’m trying to motivate them in all aspects, but the motivation has to come from within, too.”

Miller’s news conference Monday was just the latest episode of him trying to inspire his players.

Earlier in the season, Miller called them “lifeless” and their effort “terrible” after a 35-point win over Long Beach State.

Harsh words, yes, but the Wildcats rattled off eight wins in a row after that, including victories over two top-10 teams in Texas A&M and Arizona State.

“I just think he cares,” Jackson-Cartwright said of Miller’s criticism. “Any coach that wants to win and wants the best for himself and his players acts in a passionate way and that’s just who he is, a passionate guy.

“I just think if he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t care about anything. That’s not the case. ... We don’t take it any way other than he cares, he wants the best.”

And the Wildcats’ effort at Colorado? Not their best. So Miller let them know about it, and now he hopes they do something about it.

“More than anything, we’re just trying to reach our potential,” Miller said. “But how can you really reach your potential when you don’t have consistent effort for 40 minutes?”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire