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Arizona’s loss to Baylor was ‘final wake-up call’ for Wildcats’ rebounding effort

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

What is on Sean Miller’s holiday wish list? Not much.

“Probably just a team that, after Christmas, can rebound a lot better than we’ve rebounded before Christmas,” he said Monday on his weekly radio show.

The UA coach was joking, and drew some laughs from fans tuning in nearby, but there is always some truth in jest, right?

Besides, after the way the Arizona Wildcats were manhandled by Baylor on Saturday, Miller couldn’t think of much else to say.

“It’s kind of hard to take your eye off it,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes into the game, a lot of times you take it for granted that when the other team misses you’re going to get most of those rebounds back. To go through that, I don’t think it was a game that I’ve ever been a part of.”

He hasn’t. The Wildcats were outrebounded 51-19 by Baylor, allowing the Bears to post a 57.6 offensive rebounding percentage. Not only is that Arizona’s worst performance in the Miller era, but also in the KenPom era, which dates back all the way to 2001-02.

“It was a men against boys type of night,” Miller said.

“We just weren’t tough enough,” center Chase Jeter said after the game.

What was especially disappointing, Miller said, is it came on the heels of the loss to Alabama. The Wildcats struggled to rebound down the final stretch of that game, so the team worked all week in practice to improve by watching film, lifting weights and doing every drill imaginable.

It still didn’t help.

“There’s a lot of different things you can do, and we’ve done just about every one of them, but the one thing about rebounding is it’s a little like having a defensive line or an offensive line in football,” Miller said.

“I’m sure that those offensive line and defensive line coaches do all the technique work, drills, trying to put those guys in different positions to be successful, but at the end of the day it’s how big are you, how much do you weight, how big am I, how much do I weigh? There is an advantage … and I think in basketball the rebounding part around the rim a lot of it is that size, the depth, the strength you have. For us, that’s not something we have on this year’s team and we have to do our very best to make up for it.”

The way to do that, Miller said, is to rebound as a team, something Arizona does not do. Jeter leads Arizona with 60 defensive rebounds, the rest of the team lagging considerably behind.

Fellow starters Brandon Williams (29), Brandon Randolph (26), Emmanuel Akot (24), and Justin Coleman (19) have all tracked down fewer than 30 defensive rebounds this season.

In fact, Dylan Smith, a 6-foot-5 swingman who comes off the bench, is second on the team with 38. And while Ira Lee is Arizona’s second-best per-minute rebounder, his deficiencies in other areas have prevented him from making much of an impact.

“I would say that would be the No. 1 or 2 thing we had emphasized not only in our talk (after the Alabama game) but working in practice is trying to make sure that all five players understand the importance of blocking out and guards sometimes have to go in there and rebound,” Miller said.

“We had a number of different players in that (Baylor) game that had one rebound, two rebounds. We’ve had guys playing as many as 25-plus minutes that had zero.”

That uninspiring effort resulted in one of the most embarrassing losses in McKale Center in recent memory, and more could be on the way if Miller doesn’t get what he wants for Christmas.

The Wildcats are on pace to finish with their worst defensive rebounding percentage since 2011-12 which, not coincidentally, is the last time they missed the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it was a wake-up call,” Miller said of the Baylor game, “and maybe a final wake-up call for our group because that’s not an easy solution when a team gets 51 rebounds to your 19.”