The Arizona Wildcats need more guys like Zeke Nnaji.
That was the gist of Sean Miller’s press conference Wednesday as his team enters what he said will be a “revealing” homestand against Utah and No. 20 Colorado.
For the first month of the season, Nnaji was logging 6.7 rebounds per game, a decent mark but nowhere near his best. Miller challenged the freshman to elevate his game, and Nnaji is now tracking down 12.4 boards over his last five contests (against better competition, no less).
Miller felt compelled to mention those numbers to the media, and surely he has recited them to Nnaji’s teammates as well. Because while Nnaji is blessed with a unique blend of size, length, and athleticism that predispose him to being a force on the glass, it is not what has led to his resurgence.
“It’s like a mindset thing,” noted forward Stone Gettings. “I think he’s really picked it up.”
And here is the other point Miller hammered home: Nnaji’s teammates need to adapt that mindset or else the losing will continue.
The Wildcats simply cannot afford to be outmuscled on the glass. They don’t have that kind of room for error. It hinders their transition offense and makes an already-shaky defense—one that got absolutely shredded by Oregon State—even more vulnerable.
“Rebounding is a big deal,” Miller said. “The 50-50 balls, loose balls, those balls that hit the rim a couple of times, and you just run in and you go grab it with two hands, that only counts for one rebound on the stat sheet. But if you’re playing for us right now, man, that’s an incredibly valuable play because that’s something that may allow us outrebound our opponent. And you guys have the stats as well as I do. When we outrebound our opponent, we’re really a hard team to beat.”
Arizona is 0-3 when it gets outrebounded and 11-1 when it outrebounds its opponent, the lone exception coming against Gonzaga when the Wildcats posted a measly +1 margin.
Arizona currently has a defensive rebounding percentage of 72.4, its third worst mark in the Miller era, despite being the 19th-tallest team in the nation.
The only Miller-coached Arizona squads that were worse in that department were the 2009-10 and 2011-12 teams, who were notoriously undersized. Neither made the NCAA Tournament.
The current cast is not in danger of missing March Madness (yet, anyway), but that could emerge as a real possibility if there is no marked improvement on the glass.
What will spur it? Probably not any major lineup changes. Miller gave contradictory answers when asked if any could be coming. He used words like “there is a possibility” and “no, I think so” before reverting to, “we’re not there yet.”
And while he acknowledged he would like to give more minutes to Ira Lee and Christian Koloko, the team’s best rebounders on a per-minute basis, he also hinted at the possibility of shrinking the 10-man rotation.
“I don’t know other than maybe Derrick Williams’ year if we’ve ever gone that deep on the bench,” Miller said. “You want to get value out of that. You want to get, if nothing else, 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.”
What about a different defensive look? Nah. Miller said playing more zone won’t magically solve Arizona’s inability to box out, nor was it even effective at forcing misses at Oregon State.
In other words, any improvement will have to come from within.
“If a guy is unable to block out on the free throw line, do you want to trade him to another Pac-12 team? Of course,” Miller said. “But you’re not able to do that. You can’t cut him, you just have to kind of look and say, ‘look, we just need you to do a better job of doing what we’re asking you to do. I know it’s not fun. I know there’s not going to be an article written after the game about your free throw block out. But if you don’t mind, we really appreciate if you could put your hands up and step across that guy so he doesn’t get the ball if they miss it.’ And there’s a lot of that going on as well, but we’re hard at work trying to hold everybody accountable. And that’s really what I believe this weekend is.”