After being swept in Oregon for the first time in over a decade, the Arizona Wildcats enter a homestand against Utah and No. 20 Colorado that will, as head coach Sean Miller put it, be a “revealing weekend.”
“Just to see how we rebound, how we perform, are able to bounce back off the Oregon swing... and trying to teach our players the value of being a great competitor,” he said Wednesday during his weekly press conference.
Here are some of the other notable things he said during his 25-minute interview.
On fixing the rebounding issues: “It’s really up to me and our staff to bring it out in our group. We did a really good job defensive rebounding against Arizona State, and there’s a real connection there because our best offense at times is really when we get out in transition. And the way you get out in transition is to create misses, deflections and turnovers, block shots, steals, and that leads to a fast push.
“When we’re out in the open court, a lot of good things have happened for our team. But when you don’t get that same defensive rebound, it not only hurts defense, but it really also in our case hurts maybe our best offense. We haven’t really experienced a lot of improvement with any of the other nine players that have played in the game rebounding. Each of them may have had their moments, but it’s on us to bring it out.
“I know I’ve used this analogy before but if you have a weak defensive line in football, or maybe you get some injuries on the offensive line, to the spectators you’re still watching the game. But to the coaches and the players that are on the field, you start to feel that wearing down effect, and it’s difficult. You can be doing some really good things, but if the offensive or defensive line isn’t intact, man, it just makes it hard to win, especially I’m sure on the road in football, or consistently over a long period of time. You might be able to get away with it in a single game, and that’s really our situation rebounding the ball.
“We gotta block out. We’ve had some guys here in our program that play different positions. Kadeem Allen, T.J McConnell, that have had big defensive rebounding games and they’ve bolstered a win. But we haven’t been able to establish that. And if you look that one statistic, it’s certainly revealing towards us but we’re the group of coaches that have put this team together and we recruited these guys, and it’s up to us to coach them and motivate them, and hold them accountable and make them better in an area that is really important for us to have a chance to win.
Miller’s first answer on possible starting lineup changes: “No, I think so. One of the things we look at closely is just the start of each half. That’s the telltale sign in many ways because you’re not evaluating just one player, you’re evaluating the group that you believe gives yourself the best chance to win. ... We got off to a slow start against Oregon State, we got off to a good start against Oregon, got off to a very good start against Arizona State. That really hasn’t been an issue. I would say that just rebounding in general (is the issue).”
Miller’s second answer on possible lineup changes: “Yeah, I don’t think we’re there. There is a possibility and it’s a possibility all the time. You want to keep everybody ready to go. There isn’t a big difference between some of the guys who don’t start the game and maybe a few that do. We try to give the starting nod to those that deserve it, that give us the best chance. And sometimes it’s a matter of circumstances. You could have a frontcourt player who might be your overall sixth or fifth best player, maybe fourth, but you can’t start three big guys or vice versa.
“But we’re always looking at it and the other thing is, we’ve played 10 players and usually when you play a deep bench like that, I don’t know other than maybe Derrick Williams’ year, if we’ve ever gone that deep on the bench, you want to get value out of that you want to get, If nothing else, you get that sustained great effort because you play in 10. When that sustained great effort isn’t in place, sometimes it makes sense to play nine or even eight and give those guys a little bit more of an opportunity. But we’re not there yet. I don’t think it’s about benching anybody or just changing the lineup, it’s a matter of us playing better as a team.”
Miller on Ira Lee possibly getting more minutes since he is the team’s best rebounder: “We’re looking to put him in a little bit more and give him a bigger opportunity. Ira is one of our team’s hardest workers and his attitude is tremendous. I thought at Oregon he really did a good job in the minutes that he played. He was a positive contributor, for sure.”
Miller on Christian Koloko: “We’re trying to get him a little bit more than then he’s playing. He plays every game now and he’s in our rotation, and when Christian has come in the game, he’s done a lot of good things. Giving him more quality minutes, even if it’s four, it might not seem like a lot, but if your starting point is eight and give him an additional two to four ... is a big difference. ... So we’re looking hard at that for sure.”
On mixing in zone defense: “We work on it all the time. As I’ve said, I think we’ll show it at some point in every game, and we have. But I also want to make sure that you understand that 13 of 16 from the field, 2 for 2 came against our zone. We got driven by Zach Reichle on the left wing with three seconds to go on the shot clock. He took the ball hard to the basket and got fouled. And then Tres Tinkle caught the ball in the middle of the zone late, turned and faced and threw a high low pass and they dunked the ball over the side of the rim. You have those same concerns regardless of what defense you play. When a shot goes up, are you going to rebound? Can you keep keep players in front?”
On if the players now realize the pressure of playing on the road: “When you sign up to play at Arizona, part of the lore is to be able to play in front of our amazing crowd and the biggest and brightest stage that you can have in college basketball. And with that there’s high expectations on our players and our coaching staff and on me, and deservedly so. Very few programs have the support that we have. The longstanding tradition of success goes beyond 30 years at this point.
“And I think we’ve talked about this as far back as a couple weeks ago—is the next game a big game, or a must win game, and the answer to that question is yes. Every game that we play, there’s pressure and that’s part of why you want to come to Arizona, to be a part of that pressure. It brings out the best in talented young players and talented teams and coaches. I think embracing that is really what we try to do, but losing is not the answer. And people are held accountable when you lose, and I’m held accountable when we lose, and right now that’s what we’re doing, so it’s up to us to bounce back here.
On Arizona’s margin for error this season: “We have back to back home games against to two teams that are very good, and we have to play well. You always learn your room for error as a coach with the team that you have. There are times when it’s just, ‘we didn’t make shots, God our offense wasn’t really good.’ But we still found a way to win because our defense was fantastic and we dominated the glass and we made big plays down the stretch. Those things happen during the long course of the season. Right now, this year’s team, we have to play really well. We have to play well on defense, we have to play well on offense. Our contributions with our non-starters, guys who don’t start the game, our bench,, being able to come in again and make a positive impact, it’s important that we get that because I don’t look at it as us having any room for error. If we don’t play well, it’s tough for us.”
On the importance on the Utah-Colorado homestand for the Pac-12 title race: “I don’t think our focus is really on the standings as much as just getting a win, being able to win a Pac-12 game. It’s something that hasn’t been easy for us and we have to get that right and bounce back. Conversely, we’ve played against some great teams in this country, there’s no doubt about it. You look at what Baylor is doing, you look at Gonzaga, you can make the argument that those two teams have a chance to be one-seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament. And there are times when we’ve played really well in those games, where we had an opportunity to win. We played winning basketball, but in those same games you have to finish it, Sustained effort, sustained, concentration and execution. And it’s something that our team is, my hope, improving on and learning as we move through our games.”
On Utah wing Timmy Allen: “Timmy Allen is one of our conference’s best players. I really felt that last year, he was one of our conference’s best players. He really has a unique skillset of scoring close to the basket, even though he’s, a wing player. He’s incredibly skilled and crafted, and when you watch a wing player score around the rim, there’s always that see maybe he’ll score that way against this type of team, but when the athletic big teams come to town, maybe his production won’t be as good. And that’s never been the case with him. He just plays his style and his game regardless of who the opponent is, and that’s going to be a really, really difficult matchup.
More on Utah: “Both Gach is I think one of our conference’s best players. He can really get it going from 3. He’s also very clever using the middle ball screens. He makes other people better. I love their freshman point guard. He’s very, very smart. He can shoot the basketball and he makes his teammates better. They have some young big guys. Similar to how we feel about Christian Koloko, I’m sure Utah feels that way about their three freshmen bigs. And they’re very well coached team as always. They beat Kentucky, they’ve had some great moments, and think the best is yet to come for them because they’re so young. And you could tell they’re building something special with that freshman class because those guys are going to grow and get older together. And I think at some point when they’re veterans, they’re going to be an excellent excellent basketball team. They’re a very good team right now.”
Miller on the freshmen and, more specifically, Zeke Nnaji: “Our three freshmen have done a really, really good job. They’re all having very good season. Sometimes you forget a year ago, they would have been in high school. And it’s one thing to start in a basketball program as a freshman, but not only have they been our starters, but they have played the most minutes, they take the most shots, they have the most responsibility. And then those guys I think in some ways are learning and doing the best they can.
“The one of the three, Zeke, if you just see it for what it is right now, his statistics as a player are very, very consistent. If you look at our last five games in which we’re 1-4, his stat line is very good. As a matter of fact, we really challenged our entire team to be better rebounding the ball, both individually and just making that a point of emphasis to improve. Zeke has done that. In the last five games, he’s over double figure rebounds. ... If you look back at maybe six or seven games into our season, although he was playing very well, his rebounds per game were maybe less than seven. He had a few games where he really did it, and then a few games maybe where he didn’t. But right he’s averaging 16 and 10. If you look at our losses and you look at his stats in those five losses, very consistent. And if you look at our 11 wins, very consistent.
“And I think that’s really to Zeke’s credit. It’s difficult to impact the game as a freshman, but right now his rebounding is skyrocketing, and I think he’s playing really good basketball. He gets fouled a lot, he’s shooting a good percentage from the line, and in the last five game I don’t know if he has five turnovers as well. And for a young big guy who is playing against different defenses, that’s a statistic that’s really impressive as well. So we’re also challenging him to be able to defend perimeter players, big guys, and that takes a little bit more time. But I think it’s worth pointing him out because of how impressive he’s been through the first 16 games of this year here at Arizona.”