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Arizona's defense is historically bad in 2017-18

Only one Arizona team has been worse defensively in the Miller era

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Miller has been the head coach of 14 teams, and he can only think of two that were worse defensively than his current Arizona Wildcats squad — his first team at Xavier (2003-04) and his first team at Arizona (2009-10).

"But other than those two," he said Monday, "this is it for sure."

The numbers back up his claim. Arizona currently ranks 106th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Miller's first Xavier team ranked 158th and his first Arizona team ranked 108th.

Neither of those two teams made the NCAA Tournament, but this year's Arizona squad finds itself ranked 13th in the country and in first place in the Pac-12 thanks to an offense that ranks sixth in the country.

"Every team has their own personality and strengths," he said. "So can we get even better on offense? Can we be the best offensive team that’s played at Arizona the last 14 years, 20 years? At the end of our season, can we become that good? Is that our upside? That will offset a lot of negatives on the other end of the court."

But only so many. No national championship team in the KenPom era (since 2001) has had as porous as Arizona's. They all ranked 18th or better on that end of the floor (and the team that ranked 18th had the No. 1 offense).

So why is Arizona's defense struggling so much? Miller gave two reasons — it allows too many open 3s and fouls too much.

Pac-12 foes are shooting 38 percent from 3 against the Wildcats and have a free-throw rate — the number of free throws per field goal attempt — of 34.8.

Those figures rank ninth and eighth in the conference, respectively. In all, Arizona's defense ranks sixth in a weak Pac-12.

"We have a couple guys on our team that, I’m going to say there’s 1,100 players that play college basketball, and if you start going fouls per minute played, they’re in the top-25 percent of that," Miller said.

Yet, Arizona is 19-5 and still the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 title, holding a one-game lead over the USC Trojans atop the conference standings.

But the Wildcats' current makeup isn't a recipe for success in March, so Miller is more worried about improving defensively than repeating as conference champions.

“I wish we could’ve fixed (our defense) and been further along but there’s still plenty of time left," he said. "I think our mantra moving forward isn’t to win the Pac-12, it’s not to beat the next team, it really has to be to look at ourselves and have a sense of improvement. To know that we have to get better in certain areas of the game for us to have the most success this season.”

Arizona's room for growth is limited, though. As Miller acknowledged, the Wildcats are "challenged personnel-wise."

Not only does Arizona not have a go-to defender like Kadeem Allen or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but it hardly has anybody who could be categorized as a plus-defender.

Plus, most of the guys who make Arizona's offense so dominant — Allonzo Trier, Dusan Ristic, Rawle Alkins, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright — have been average at best on defense.

Trier has a negative defensive box plus/minus — a box score estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player — while Ristic (1.4) and PJC (1.3) are just a shade higher.

Alkins sits a bit above them at 2.4, but his role has fluctuated the last couple weeks because of foot soreness.

So the only major contributor on Arizona's roster who has been above average on both ends of the floor is Deandre Ayton, whose defensive box plus/minus is 3.6, the second-best mark on the team behind reserve Keanu Pinder.

"I think a number of our players are blessed more on the offensive end than they are on the defensive end," Miller said. "But I’ve never seen a team and maybe they’re out there that can have the collective success, go deep into the tournament, and win championships because they play one-sided basketball.

“And as an individual player, I don’t know anybody that gets where they want to get to when they leave college when they play when the ball is on their side of the court, yet can’t defend. So really if you think about it, those are two goals that a lot of our players have. Number one, we want to win and number two each of our guys would like to leave Arizona and go on and play professionally. But you have to be able to defend and play offense and for us the skills are really tilted in favor of our offense."

Since Arizona's personnel isn't conducive to playing stingy man-to-man defense like it's accustomed to, some have suggested the Wildcats incorporate some zone into their defensive repertoire.

Miller wasn't too high on that idea. He never has been.

“We have to look at mixing it in, but there’s going to be a lot of wide open shots that are going to go up if we play zone," he said.

"I think sometimes a fan who hasn’t played the game (says) ‘hey, let’s put up a zone and that’s going to cure all.’ It can maybe change the dynamic in a particular possession, give a different look, it’s like an x number of possessions in a game where you go to it to maybe create uncertainty or unbalance, but when you start reinventing yourself … guys have to be committed to move their feet, communicate. You’re going to go down the same line defensively as we are with our man-to-man.”

Miller said Arizona practices and prepares now the same way it did when it had the No. 1 defense in 2013-14. But he acknowledged some tweaks are needed.

“Sometimes what’s worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work with the current team," he said. "It’s up to us to adjust and we have a little bit, but defense — zone, man, trap, not trap — it comes down to those same things."

The Wildcats have won 15 of their last 17 games and are 9-2 in Pac-12 play, so one might figure they are doing just fine as is.

But part of their success can be attributed to the overall weakness of the Pac-12.

KenPom rates it as the sixth-best major conference (far below the top five), and the Wildcats have only played one team — Arizona State — that is inside the top 70 since league play started.

So Arizona has been able to pile up the wins even as its defense has regressed (the Wildcats once ranked in the 50s in defensive efficiency).

Which is why Saturday's road loss to Washington, which Miller blamed on the defense, might be a useful coaching tool.

"You’re critical, you know you need to improve as a player and as a coach but, yeah, we just keep winning," Miller said. "The sting of a loss sometimes gets everybody’s undivided attention. And my hope is that we can grow and build. There’s a number of programs and teams that are really good that lost this weekend. I think all of us will try to utilize weekend to make us better. We’re not different. Whether that happens or not, I don’t know.

“The one thing is, you also have to consider your team’s play. Sometimes you can play really well, lights out and lose. And once in a while you might have a half where you play well and a half where you’re just awful and you win, and I know the end result is what we’re after but it’s really getting a feel for how your team plays. This week, we can play really well and not win."

Miller has liked how his team has responded to losses this season, but called the upcoming homestand against UCLA and USC a "great, great challenge," saying both are led by "a number of NBA players."

He's right — UCLA has the top-ranked offense in the Pac-12 and USC's is third, so Arizona's defense will surely be tested.

And if it fails? Things could get real ugly.

“With our defense the way it is," Miller warned, "they could put 100 on us. Both teams."

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire