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Arizona’s defense made strides the last two games

But will that continue?

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As Sean Miller was driving into work Monday, he thought about how long his team has been on the grind.

It’s been a while.

Remember, the Arizona Wildcats had an exhibition tour in Spain in August, so instead of starting practice in September or October, they trained 10 times in the middle of the summer, getting a head start on the rest of college basketball.

So by now, six months later in late February, Miller knows his team inside and out, and players know their roles.

“Every week you’re together, every game, every experience you go through, you’re more comfortable,” Miller said. “And maybe you’re more comfortable with things you don’t like, but you certainly know your strengths and weaknesses. That’s for sure. And that allows us to really spend time on the right things and make sure that we’re developing those things.”

The No. 1 thing Arizona is spending time on these days is its defense, which currently ranks 96th in the country, per KenPom.

And a big chunk of that time is spent in the film room, where Miller not only points out mistakes or areas for improvement, but also highlights the things the Wildcats are doing well — like certain instances where players have done a good job defending without fouling, or closing out on a shooter.

“We call those identity clips,” Miller said. “This is what we want it to look like. If you watch Arizona play this is what we pride ourselves in looking like. And sometimes when you go down that path, it’s nice for our team to see that we can do it, I can do it, and that’s what it looks like when you do it.

“Then when you show the other side of it when mistakes are made, it balances out. So we do that and then obviously practice is still important.”

There have been more and more identity clips lately. Arizona has shown recently that it can be a good defensive team, or at least good enough for its high-powered offense to work with. The Wildcats have won two straight, and posted two of their best defensive performances during that streak.

Arizona held USC to 1.06 points per possession which, when adjusted for the opponent, was UA’s eighth-best defensive performance of the season, per KenPom.

Then UA held ASU to just .969 points per possession which was Arizona’s second-best defensive outing of the year.

Those two games alone allowed Arizona’s defensive efficiency to improve about 10 spots nationally.

“You knew this was going to be case. It’s not going be just flip the switch and all of a sudden we’re night-and-day better, but I think we’re moving in a positive direction,” Miller said. “Now we have to keep moving in that direction. That’s the whole key defensively.

“If you look at statistics, we’re doing a better job defending the 3-point shot and I don’t think we’ve fouled as much recently. Those are two really key areas to our defense. There are so many possessions this season that the shot clock is under 10, the offensive player isn’t in an advantage position, and we bail them out by fouling. That does a number of things. They score on the possession, they get into the bonus quicker. Sometimes one of our starters has to sit down. So fouling and defending the 3, the continues be something we reinforce everyday.”

That emphasis showed in Tempe, where Arizona held the Sun Devils to just 7-of-25 from 3 and 12 free throw attempts.

ASU scored 70 points and shot 42 percent overall, but Miller thinks those numbers are deceiving. In a good way.

“I could say that our defense might have been the best it’s been all Pac-12 season, because they scored quite a few points off our turnovers,” said Miller, whose team coughed the ball up 20 times against ASU. “Considering that, they weren’t necessarily scoring as easily against our half-court defense. But we’re making improvements.”

Emmanuel Akot has emerged as a useful piece defensively, as his size gives UA’s defense an extra dimension on the perimeter, but what really makes the difference for Arizona’s defense, Miller has said, is Deandre Ayton, whose size, athleticism, and length is unmatched around the country.

He can cover ground, block and alter shots, and is one of the top defensive rebounders in the nation. And he is only getting better.

“This team goes as Deandre goes,” Miller said. “His defense sets the tone for a lot. You have to realize that he’s 7-foot, 260 pounds. . ... He is so gifted. ... It’s not his shot-blocking, it’s his quick movement away from the basket at his size.”

Arizona is entering the most important stretch of the season, a time of year Miller says teams start to get “categorized.”

“There’s those teams that have cashed it in. They don’t have a whole lot to play for,” Miller said. “(Then) you’ve got teams that are playing with their hair on fire because they’re playing for a high seed, a conference championship, or maybe even an at-large bid and they’re desperate in a good way.”

Arizona certainly falls into that second category. The Wildcats will win the Pac-12 barring a major collapse, but their seed in the NCAA Tournament can still fluctuate significantly depending how they finish the regular season.

Plus, how they perform in March will overshadow anything else they do (that’s just how it works in Tucson).

So while the Wildcats have taken a step forward defensively these last two games, they cannot afford to take two steps back, which has seemingly been the trend this season.

Keep in mind Arizona once ranked in the 50s in defensive efficiency before falling all the way to the 100s.

“We’ve certainly had our bumps in the road and there will probably be some more, but I do think our team has a confidence about us right now, and we’ve been at it for a while, both practicing and playing games,” Miller said.

“And everybody points toward the end and the end is near. Sometimes that can bring out the best in the group, and hopefully that will be (the case for) ours.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire