The Maui Invitational might have been discouraging for some Arizona Wildcats fans, who saw an obvious talent divide between their team and Top-10 squads like Gonzaga and Auburn, but UA players have a different outlook.
“It showed us a glimpse of what we could really do and I think we have a chance to be a very good team down the line,” forward Ira Lee said Tuesday.
After all, Arizona beat Iowa State (albeit the Cyclones were short-handed) and then went toe-to-toe with Gonzaga and Auburn for 30-plus minutes before falling apart late and losing by double figures in games that were much closer than the scoreboard would indicate.
But therein lies a sizable problem — Arizona was unable to string together 40 quality minutes of basketball.
“I think all three teams will be in this year’s tournament and two of them will probably have very high seeds, so you have to play great basketball,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “And we had our moments in each of the three games, but we were really incapable this early in the season with our group to be real good from start to finish.”
The Maui Invitational represented the first time Arizona faced stiff competition, and Lee said the No. 1 takeaway from the trip was that “you gotta play hard all the time and you gotta play together all the time.”
“We showed a lot of good flashes. When we’re actually on the same page, we can do some pretty good things,” he said. “But as you saw in the second half against Gonzaga, second half against Auburn, we fell apart. But we’ll fix that. It’s early in the season, it’s November, so we’re not really worried about that.”
Miller learned a lot about Arizona’s offense in Maui in particular, which, aside from some hot shooting by Justin Coleman, struggled in Hawaii. The Wildcats shot 42 percent or worse in all three games, and their efficiency dipped as the tournament wore on, averaging just 89.1 points per 100 possessions against Auburn.
Not to mention the turnovers, which Arizona had been doing a good job limiting, piled up. The Wildcats committed 10 against Iowa State, 16 against Gonzaga, and then 19 against Auburn. Arizona’s lack of quality depth was exposed, too, as its bench scored just 19 points on the island.
Knowing what he knows now, Miller is optimistic those problems can be fixed.
“The challenge for us as a coaching staff is to get the very best out of all of our players,” he said. “And I find the challenge offensively here is we have so many new faces that it almost takes a month of this year to really understand what works, what doesn’t, maybe what we can do to better to suit each of these guys individually on offense.
“And I wish I had it right from day one, but some of our errors in Maui, it’s just organization, it’s just being more organized, being more detailed, putting someone like Ryan Luther in a position to call his number and make sure that we get a balance of throwing him the ball around the basket more. He’s not someone who’s going to take it upon himself to do that. He’s going to have to do it with our help. So that’s one of many things we learned in Maui.”
So even though Arizona picked up two losses in Hawaii, the hope is that those games will make the Wildcats better moving forward and that, by the end of the season, they will be able to compete with elite teams like Gonzaga or Auburn for a full 40 minutes instead of 30-and-change.
“That’s also the blessing when you play in a tournament like that. There’s no secrets anymore,” Miller said. “You kind of feel good about the things you’re good at with the hope that you can just improve on those things. And then your concern on the weaknesses that your team has is real. And now it’s just a matter of where we can go from a week ago to this week to a month from now.
“Everybody wants to win every game, but losing to Auburn and Gonzaga, being able to learn what we’ve learned, I think there’s a healthy dose of optimism we have that we are going to be better by leaps and bounds because we went through that experience.”