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Arizona looking for more from Ira Lee: ‘This team needs him’

NCAA Basketball: North Dakota State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

One of the many lessons learned in Arizona’s loss to Alabama is that the Wildcats have to do a better job rebounding, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.

The Crimson Tide outrebounded Arizona 40-38 and tracked down an offensive rebound in five of their final seven possessions on Sunday, which Sean Miller thought swung the game in Alabama’s favor.

The good news is Arizona’s next game is not until Saturday, so players and coaches will use the next few days to try to tighten things up before taking on a Baylor team that is not all that different from Alabama.

“Our emphasis moving forward is, especially against Baylor, to be a team that blocks out, that has guys giving unreal effort on the glass where it’s not just our big guys, it’s all five,” Miller said Wednesday. “Our guards have just as much responsibility, and getting players to come in the game who don’t start to really do that well.”

Miller singled out a bench player that he believes is part of the solution and, thus, could receive more playing time this week: Ira Lee.

Miller claimed the 6-foot-7 forward is Arizona’s best per-minute rebounder, and while that is not true — Chase Jeter rebounds at a slightly higher rate — Lee is second by a wide margin.

Yet, the sophomore is only averaging 13.7 minutes per game.

“Him and Chase are our top two rebounders and being able to play them together some, being able to play Ira for longer stretches and rest Chase, that does two things — that adds an active rebounder in the game and it also allows Chase to play the minutes that he’s the most comfortable playing where he can be at his best,” Miller said.

However, Lee, who many thought would take the freshman-to-sophomore leap, has struggled this season and in the last three games in particular.

During that stretch, he has posted four points and three rebounds in 24 minutes, his playing time lessening each game. (He only played five minutes against Alabama).

What is worse is Lee committed eight turnovers and four fouls during that stretch, a recurring problem for the Los Angeles native.

“Ira is good player, but players go through different parts of the year where their confidence can waiver and no doubt that’s the period of time that he’s in,” Miller said. “But you can quickly bounce out of it. And the good news is this is a week where we really have five or six days where we’re not playing a game and we can focus on ourselves. Someone like Ira can really focus on stringing together consecutive good practices which will lead into the game, but we need him. This team needs him.”

Aside from aiding Arizona on the glass, Miller said Lee is also Arizona’s best screener, something the sophomore takes “great pride” in.

“He can really move, he’s agile, and he’s not a little guy,” Miller said. “When he hits you, good things happen for our team.”

Well, not always.

Lee has been whistled for several illegal screens this season. Those are momentous plays because they are a turnover for Arizona’s offense and add to Lee’s foul total, which has a tendency to add up quickly.

Lee is averaging 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes, the highest on the team. He averaged 7.2 last season, also the highest on the team. It prevents him from staying on the court for long stretches at a time and taking on a large role.

“It’s just the discipline of jump-stopping instead of having your feet continue to move, not ever using your arms and sometimes he does both of those other things (when screening),” Miller said. “But game experience cures that.”

So can some help from UA’s guards.

“One of the biggest things for us guards is to wait for the bigs and make sure they’re set and not to pick up a silly foul like that,” said two-guard Brandon Williams.

After being suspended for the opener as punishment for a super extreme DUI citation over the summer, Lee had an inspiring start to the season by grabbing six or more rebounds in three of his first four games.

So while his production has dipped as of late, those kinds of stretches are why Miller thinks the former four-star recruit can still be a real asset for the Wildcats, who sorely need him to be.

“Ira is going to improve. I’m confident in that,” Miller said. “Certainly slowing down, not setting illegal screens, not fouling those are all things that are under his control and we’re really trying to show him the areas that he can clean up, that we can help him clean up, coach him, teach him and then have him carry that into the game. But he’s a big part of our future and we want to keep it that way.”