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Arizona basketball: On Ira Lee’s return, keys to postseason success, Emmanuel Akot’s offense, and more

Lee was cleared to return from his concussion Monday, and will play in the Pac-12 Tournament

UMBC v Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Arizona Wildcats freshman forward Ira Lee was fully cleared to practice Monday and will play in the Pac-12 Tournament, head coach Sean Miller said Monday night on his weekly radio show.

Lee has missed the last four games with a concussion.

With him back, Arizona’s bench will be at full strength heading into the postseason.

“Last year, that’s a big reason that we won the Pac-12 Tournament is we not only got consistent play from our starters, but we had a number of players come in and didn’t start who really helped us and played well,” Miller said.

“… So when you go to this year, I think the same thing will hold true. We need guys like Emmanuel (Akot), Keanu (Pinder), Brandon (Randolph), Ira, Alex (Barcello), Dylan (Smith), those guys being able to do their job coming into the game. And not only rest the starters, but to make good plays.”

Arizona faces the winner of the Colorado-ASU game on Thursday at 1 p.m. MST in Las Vegas in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.

Miller said Arizona will spend Monday and Tuesday’s practice perfecting its game, then start preparing for its opponent Wednesday.

“You speculate who you’re going to play too much. It’s so much about how well can we play. How hard we can play. How together and in sync can we be in those 40 minutes,” he said.

“... But when you’ve played a team twice, the familiarity is on both sides. It doesn’t take a long time for those guys to get ready to go.”

Miller said Arizona emphasized limiting turnovers Monday in what he characterized as a “good practice.”

“It’s tough to advance in March when you turn the ball over 13, 15, 17 times,” Miller said. “Teams are too good. You have to have those single-digit type of turnover games. 10 or fewer. That’s always worked well for us.”

Miller said shoring up his team’s 3-point defense is also a key heading into the postseason. Teams are shooting 36 percent from beyond the arc against the Wildcats this year.

“You can lose to an inferior team on a neutral court with a snap of a finger if they get hot from behind the line,” he said. “We’re not nearly good defending the 3 as we’ve been and we continue to work at it and emphasize it, but those are two stats to keep an eye on.

“And then when you flip it, our strength is getting the ball in around the basket, rebound, and give the team no second shots, and really utilize our personnel. And … I don’t know if there’s a team that’s capable of winning that many games, even in Las Vegas, without quality play from your bench.”

Speaking of UA’s bench, Miller was asked by a fan if improving offensively is Emmanuel Akot’s next step as a player, and Miller agreed.

“It is.” he said. “He is more confident. He made two big free throws in the Cal game. We’ve been working with him on his free-throw shot. He went to the line much more confident and shot both of them, but he’s improving from the line.

“His shooting will really make a big jump this offseason, but right now we don’t need him to score, per se. We need him to come in, play defense, rebound, do a real good job moving the ball. He’s an excellent passer. He’s one of our best post passers, and him being able to do those things is .... how he contributes and makes us a really good team.”

Arizona’s freshmen, who have mostly been disappointing this season, will work on their strength and conditioning and fundamentals this offseason, looking to take the patented sophomore leap, Miller said.

“We have more opportunity to work on these guys in the offseason now than ever before, and many times it’s a night-and-day difference,” he said.

Miller is a fan of the NBA changing its age limit so that players can enter the draft straight out of high school.

“I think that would be a great rule for college basketball. It would put it back more on the student-athlete and give young people who are incredibly talented the option,” he said.

“And if they want to go on in life and be able to pursue their career dreams, and let’s face it, there are those incredibly talented people in other sports or other avenues that have that option, and a basketball player should probably have that same option.”

Miller hopes four Pac-12 teams can get into the NCAA Tournament — Arizona, ASU, USC, and UCLA.

“If we can get those four in, and then maybe sneak in a fifth, that would be awesome,” he said.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently lists USC and UCLA as two of the last four teams in, while ASU is projected as an 11-seed, and Arizona is projected to be a 4-seed.

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire