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Arizona hopes to shore up rebounding, transition defense before Baylor game

arizona-wildcats-washington-huskies-zone-defense-mike-hopkins-college-basketball Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

How studious are the Arizona Wildcats? We’ll know this week.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are what Coach Sean Miller calls “heavy days” for the players. They will hunker down, hit the books, and take their final exams to wrap up the fall semester.

But the schooling won’t end there.

Once finals are over, UA players (and coaches) will shift their undivided attention to the hardwood where they will try to learn from the mistakes that plagued them in Sunday’s road loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“Our players go from having a lot on their plate to nothing but basketball,” Miller said Monday on his weekly radio show. “This will be a good week where we can really focus on ourselves and learn a lot from the Alabama game.”

For Miller, the 76-73 loss in Tuscaloosa highlighted two areas that need repair: Rebounding and transition defense.

Let’s start with the first one. Arizona was outrebounded by Alabama, 40-38. That isn’t terrible considering the Crimson Tide had a +7.2 rebounding margin entering the game and have outrebounded every opponent this season. The Wildcats even had more offensive rebounds than Alabama, owning a 13-11 advantage.

The problem is Arizona couldn’t get defensive rebounds in the game’s final moments, which led to second-chance points that ultimately made the difference.

“We did from a rebounding perspective very, very well for about 32 to 36 minutes. If you look at the total rebounds and second shots going into the late three and a half minutes of the game, they had only six. For them, that’s very, very good in terms of us blocking them out and that’s why the game was tied and we were able to rally back” from a 19-point deficit, Miller said.

“But they got four second-shots in the last four minutes, it broke our back, and when they needed those second shots the most, they got them and that’s obviously an area of concern and something that we have to learn from.”

As far as transition defense goes, Miller said it was Arizona’s worst effort of the season. And while he acknowledged the athletic Crimson Tide are not an easy team to guard in the open court, he thought his team’s woes were mostly self-inflicted.

“Getting back on defense, it takes great effort and it takes communication, organization,” Miller said. “A lot of times if you’re playing offense and you take a bad shot or a turnover happens, those are really hard to defend. We had a combination of everything going on and giving them the points they scored in transition especially at the end of the game … that’s what did us in.”

Both have been recurring problems this season, especially rebounding. The Wildcats, who boast a smaller frontline than usual, rank 66th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, their worst mark under Miller since the 2011-12 season. They missed the NCAA Tournament that year.

Meanwhile, opponents have posted an 51.2 eFG% against Arizona in transition this season, which is not that much higher from Miller’s previous teams, but there is probably some luck involved, since opponents are only shooting 28 percent from 3 against UA in transition this year, well below the Division 1 average.

And where the numbers do differ is how often teams are attacking the Wildcats in the open court, with nearly one-third of their field goals being taken in transition.

In 2017-18 and 2015-16, that mark was 22 percent. In 2016-17, it was 24.

“We have a couple real lessons that are sitting right there in front of us and it will all come down to how we respond, how we learn and where we go from here when it comes to rebounding as a team and being able to do the job in the biggest moments of games, especially away from home,” Miller said.

“And you cannot give teams easy shots in transition if you want to have a successful season, but in particular with our team this year. We don’t have great margin for error. We’ve been very good in those two areas relative to who we are. And against Alabama when we weren’t, that’s when the game got away.”

Miller hopes the extended week of practice will help the Wildcats shore up their deficiencies Saturday against Baylor. If not, Arizona could be at serious risk of dropping a game that it may very well need to win to make the NCAA Tournament.

Baylor is 38th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, just four spots behind Alabama. The Bears’ offense runs at a faster pace, too, ranking 108th in average possession length.

“That’s what every losing coach says when you lose on the road, that we could have done better in these things and we didn’t,” Miller said. “Now it’s up to us to learn from it, grow from it and respond here on Saturday when we play a very talented Baylor team at home.

“This is a very big week for us on and off the court. Hopefully when you see us on Saturday, finals are behind us and our team is playing our best basketball that we possibly can.”