Sean Miller‘s teams are usually known for their defensive mettle, but it has escaped them the past two seasons. The Arizona Wildcats have struggled mightily on that side of the ball, ranking 63rd and 83rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
That is a far cry from 2011-12 to 2016-17 when Arizona finished as high as No. 1 in the country and no worse than 39th.
Speaking to reporters at Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday, Miller said he is excited to improve and “get our defense back” this season.
“If you look at maybe where we once were, we had a lot of pride in our man-to-man defense, and usually the defensive teams are able to win on the road, get better as the year grows,” he said. “You get into those tough games in February and March, you have to be able to do both, score and play defense.”
If Arizona is going to improve defensively, it will mostly be the product of new personnel. When asked if the Wildcats will be mixing in more zone with their usual pack-line principles, Miller said: “We’re hard at work at our defense, but in terms of us changing a whole lot, I don’t think we’ll do that.”
Arizona has lacked stingy perimeter defenders lately—the last great one being Kadeem Allen—but Miller listed redshirt senior Dylan Smith as someone who can be of big help.
The Wildcats have other athletic wings like freshman Josh Green and sophomore Devonaire Doutrive, though neither have proven they can defend at a high level at the collegiate level.
“Dylan is one of those rare players in college basketball that he’s a senior, number one, but he’s also contributed on a number of teams that he’s been a part of,” Miller said. “He’s an older guy that works very hard. I think he’s one of our team’s best perimeter defenders, along the lines of what you asked me a second ago about our defense, he’s part of the solution.”
Arizona could possibly start three freshmen— Green, Nico Mannion, and Zeke Nnaji—which could lead to some growing pains as they learn the ins and outs of the pack-line defense, but Miller said the newcomers are as coachable as they are talented.
“They don’t think they have all the answers, and they’re not just at Arizona to reach their own individual goals,” Miller said. “They came here to be a part of a team and to compete for championships and win, and also that they recognize that they have things they need to do better and work at. That’s why they came to college. And hopefully that’s one of the big reasons they picked our program, that they feel like they can grow and develop.”
One thing defenses have to take into account this season is the longer 3-point line. It remains to be seen how that will change the game, but some believe it will cause teams to prioritize their interior defense and be OK with surrendering more 3-point shots, the idea being that their opponents will see a dip in their conversion rate.
The Wildcats added plenty of size this offseason with Nnaji and Christian Koloko, and returners like Ira Lee and Chase Jeter have proven to be effective interior defenders, so it would not be surprising to see them go that route.
Arizona already gives up a lot of 3-point attempts as it is, ranking 118th and 113th in the country the past two seasons in opponent 3-point rate—the number of 3-point attempts per field goal attempt.
However, Miller said he doesn’t know how much the new 3-point line “affects what we do” but said “it’ll have a big change” on the sport.
“I coached USA Basketball, and being a part of FIBA, that distance is definitely a separator,” he said. “So I think for all of us, you don’t really know a rule change until you go through a season, but I do think it’ll have an effect.”