It wasn’t the rout most people were expecting. The No. 14 Arizona Wildcats (5-0) had to rally from a 10-point first-half deficit to defeat the South Dakota State Jackrabbits 71-64 on Thursday in McKale Center.
Head coach Sean Miller delivered a scathing four-minute rant to begin his postgame press conference, criticizing his team’s shot selection and inability to get Zeke Nnaji the ball. The freshman phenom finished with 12 points but did not attempt a field goal in the first half.
Here’s what Miller had to say:
“First things first, I want to give South Dakota State a lot of credit. Those kids and their coach had a really good game plan, they executed, they’re a well-disciplined team. We knew that before we played them. They’re used to winning and you can sense and feel that, and they have a very solid point guard. And (Douglas) Wilson we knew coming into the game was an outstanding player. And they’re disciplined on both sides of the ball. They played against the team tonight that wasn’t very smart, and that’s our team.
“Everybody gets kicks out of quick shots and it’s fun, it’s like we’re at a carnival. It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work. The analogy is no different in college football. When the weather gets cold, you gotta be able to both run and pass. You gotta be smart. You know, that sounds good, but usually when the game gets going fast, that means that you’re flying around on defense, you’re getting defensive stops, you’re making good plays. And of course we have talent in the open court and that’s when the quick shots are going to go up and they’re going to be good shots. But to take quick, crazy shots, 3-point shots the way we did tonight, we’re very fortunate to win.
“We have a player on our team who leads the nation. If you lead the nation in anything, you are outstanding. Zeke Nnaji has proven that when he gets the ball, especially around the rim, great things happen. We play 20 minutes, and he was in foul trouble, but it really started in the second half of the last game. He didn’t take one shot. He didn’t take one shot. You have the nation’s leading field-goal shooter on your team and he doesn’t take one jump hook? Not one? That’s a problem. And we have 13 3-point shots at the half? We had 10 2s. We were 8 for 10 from 2. We were 4 for 13 from 3. You don’t get fouled, you don’t go to the foul line, and then the fact we had 12 turnovers, plus 13 3s, that’s as poor and really inefficient, ineffective, not playing to win, not playing smart, 20 minutes we’ve had in a long, long time, especially considering the way that our team is constructed.
“So at halftime, the message was simple. Let’s get the ball closer to the basket. Let’s be a little bit more patient. We took care of the ball, we had only three turnovers. We had three turnovers in a minute and a half to open the game. So we played the final 20 minutes with only three turnovers which is great, and you look at what happened, we took three 3s. Even some of the 2s we missed were right at the rim. They were head-scratchers, two or three of them where they’re 90 percent shots. Bu all of a sudden you shoot 30 free throws in one half after we shot seven in the first half. So we have to be a smarter overall team.
“And one thing about basketball that makes our game different than others is the same group of guys on offense have to play defense. If you take quick, ill-advised shots on offense, the ball is not getting to where it should, it’s hard for that same group to be tough-minded, disciplined, together on defense. It works together. And when you’re playing tough defense, where you’re supposed to be, you’re riding it out, and you’re getting defensive stops, well that same group’s not going to take circus shots, 3-point shots for no reason.
“So do I feel like we have the ability to learn a lesson here? No doubt. But the lesson is learned from my perspective of that’s not going to happen. If we have to slow down to slow down (we’ll do it). But the best players on our team, the players that are efficient, need to get more shots and the players that keep missing have to shoot less or play less.
“I think the other part is we’re a deep team, tonight was not our bench’s night. They broke down defensively and we just didn’t get that spark. We might have had one four-minute stretch in the second half where we did, but our bench didn’t have a great night. For that matter, really neither did our starters. We did not have a good night tonight. South Dakota State deserves a lot of credit. But again, the fact Zeke had zero field-goal attempts in the first 20 minutes, that’s the coach’s fault. And it’s up to me to correct that and I think it’ll be corrected first thing tomorrow.”
Here are some quotes from the rest of Miller’s postgame press conference.
On precisely when and how Arizona can effectively play up-tempo going forward: “Playing fast is going to happen because we are good in the open court, when we get opportunities and we’re racing the ball up, or we’re pushing it off of misses. But a quick shot, it’s never changed in the last 200 years or for the next 200, a quick shot of the basketball has got to be a good one. If you take too many quick ones, by the wrong guys, when they don’t go in all of a sudden the game feels funny.”
On how too many bad shots can negatively effect the team’s defensive performance: “It’s really hard to give your heart and soul as a unit on defense when you’re really not playing as a unit on offense. And that is definitely the lesson we learned [tonight]. Now it’s up to us to learn from it and carry that into the next game. But if we play the style that we played tonight, there’s gonna be some games where we look great and there’s going to be some games where we have some really poor halves or stretches because we weren’t a smart basketball team tonight.”
On if Arizona’s four blowout wins to start the season got to the Wildcats’ heads at all: “I think so. But again, the better competition we play against it’s not easy to get those quick ones. They’re practicing hard too. That early shot, first five seconds, first 10 seconds, it’s what all the really good defensive teams take away. You can be in a 2-3 zone, can press, get into a different zone, you can play man to man, but no matter who you are, in those early quick shots, they’re either going to be bad shots, or ill advised if you’re a good defensive team. Tonight we ran into a solid team.”
On what South Dakota State did defensively that caused the Wildcats to struggle: “I think they were daring our perimeter players to shoot and we took the bait and again, percentages don’t lie. We have to take uncontested, wide open threes. And we have a couple guys on our team that are elite three point shooters, Nico is one of the. Sometimes a quick three by him, an off the dribble three by him is completely understood. Because he can really shoot the ball, he does it every day. But we have kind of an audition going on by our perimeter players to see who has the most threes taken. It’s just not the smart way for us to play the game. We have to be a smart team.”
On his team’s rebounding performance against the Jackrabbits: “Just okay. That’s one think Zeke could do better. He had five offensive rebounds, one defensive rebound. Chase was solid with seven. But we rebounded as a team. I mean they were deliberate. They broke down late in the clock and a couple of their second shots happened with those long rebounds. You guys may know better than me but I feel like we rallied to win the rebounding battle. They were the better rebounding team for most of the game. But again, here’s the point, it’s really hard to rebound on offense, quick shots. It’s very difficult to offensive rebound, bad deep shots. And the better shot selection we got in the second half, it led to some offensive rebounds. So again, the smarter and the more efficient we are when we have the ball, it will lead to good things.”
On the main things he wants to take from this game: “We were in a tough game. First time we’ve really been tested and a couple of guys are a little bit tighter, the game doesn’t come as easily, when you’re not up by double figures the entire way. So there a lot of good things we can take from this game, but just because we can take it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. We now have to make sure that it’s very clear going forward on our roles, and shots and how we want to play, and I think you’ll see a much smarter team the next game.”