As of Thursday morning, the Arizona Wildcats had not started prepping for the things they might see from Arizona State in Saturday’s Pac-12 opener.
They have been too busy focusing on themselves since they returned from Christmas break on Dec. 26.
“So much this time of year is just to keep getting better at the things that are going to make us not only a a better team, but individuals on our team, knowing their role, doing things better,” said coach Sean Miller. “We have a lot of new faces and I have felt that through the non-conference season. I think with seven new guys who all play in the game, it’s good to have I think some of these additional practices since our non-conference year’s ended.”
It’s almost been two weeks since Arizona’s last game, a 70-67 loss to St. John’s, and Miller used that time off to hone in on three deficiencies his team must correct as it enters conference play.
1) Be better on the defensive glass
Miller said a few weeks ago that this is the worst rebounding team he’s had in his 11 seasons at Arizona. While the numbers don’t quite back that up, they are close.
The Wildcats rank 113rd in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and an even worse 162nd in defensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com.
Arizona has been outrebounded in all three of its losses, a total margin of 115 to 103. Those games were decided by a combined 12 points.
“We have not done a good job of (defensive rebounding),” Miller said. “Sometimes it hurts you with key plays. You know, big second shots against your team in the second half. There is a wearing-down effect over the course of 40 minutes and we haven’t been on the winning side of that.”
Miller stressed that it’s an effort issue, not a talent issue. He refused to place blame on any particular player, saying Arizona needs a better collective effort, from its bench to its starting five.
However, starting center Chase Jeter has seen his rebounding numbers decline this season, and acknowledged that he needs to be more physical.
“It’s a challenge for our coaching staff because it’s an area that sometimes gives you a ceiling with the talent you have,” Miller said. “But one thing that we all pride ourselves in is getting individual players to go get the ball and block out. It’s something you almost say anybody can do it. It has to be really important. So it’s not always fun to work on. It’s not fun to talk about. But when you don’t defensive rebound, you foul more, you give up backbreaking baskets that are one-foot shots. And if you just do the math, and you look at this year’s team, we’re subpar in that area, and that has to improve. Everything that we do—who we play, who we sub, a player’s who not getting the job done in that area, it’s that important.
“I think the analogy that I would give is it’s like offensive and defensive lines in football. You don’t always really know unless you’re maybe on the field or the coach who’s winning that battle. Rebounding is very similar and we struggled.”
2) Stop fouling so much
Arizona’s inability to limit offensive rebounds is one reason it ranks 57th in defensive efficiency even though its opponents are only shooting 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3.
The other reason? Way too many fouls.
“Matter of fact, we foul at almost an absurd rate,” Miller quipped. “It’s stupid.”
The Wildcats are dead last in the Pac-12, and 281st (of 353) in the country, in opponent free-throw rate, the number of free throws allowed per field-goal attempt.
Making matters worse is they have been a victim of bad luck, as their opponents have made 71.3 percent of their free-throw attempts, almost two percent above the nation’s average.
“We’re not a smart team when it comes to fouling,” Miller said. “We foul in the post, we foul on drives, we foul at the end of the clock, we foul 3-point shooters, and that’s up to our staff to correct. Some of it is the youth that we have on the court. Some of it is fundamentally we have to be better, smarter, hold people accountable more. And I’m hoping that we can improve in that area. It’s very difficult to win when you commit fouls.
“Among the many things in the St. John’s game that did us in, we had four fouls that had nothing to do with the play. You bail them out, they go to the foul line make both. They get to the bonus earlier, good players on our team have to sit out or foul out. Fouling is something you have pride in as a coach. Can you discipline your team to not foul? And those two things go hand in hand. If you don’t defensive rebound, you foul more. So I think that for us to be successful, we have to foul less and defensive rebound better.”
3) Quit it with the “stupid shots” and get the ball inside
Jeter mentioned a stat that has been prominent in the Arizona locker room lately.
“Every 10 possessions, we have 0.4 turnovers if the ball touches the paint,” he said. “And we’ve been getting a lot of good stuff out of that. So we’re trying to emphasize that more here heading into Pac-12 play.”
Getting the ball inside, especially to the uber-efficient Zeke Nnaji, should help the Wildcats remedy their third woe: “stupid shots.”
Among those, according to Miler, are “quick, off-the-dribble, sometimes 20-foot 2s, sometimes off-the-dribble 3s.”
Arizona has the No. 5 offensive rating in the country but has not been nearly as efficient against tougher teams, particularly at the 3-point line. The Wildcats are shooting 20.3 percent from 3 in losses as opposed to 43.3 percent in wins, 80 percent of which came against mid-major teams.
Nico Mannion’s struggles have been well-documented. He’s shot 12 for 49 (24.4%) in losses. Meanwhile, fellow freshman Josh Green has hoisted the second-most shots on the team—only behind Mannion—but is only converting 43.5 percent of them, including a low 32.5 percent of his 3s.
“This isn’t a circus act. This isn’t an audition,” Miller said. “This is, is the shot good for Arizona? That shot that goes up, is that a winning play? Is that a winning shot? And how you determine that now for us is we have a lot more evidence. We’ve practiced almost 60 times. We have played 13 games. We’re in the month of January.
“What percentage do you shoot? If you shoot 32 percent, that’s terrible. I can make the case you should never ever shoot the ball from that area. It’s not a good enough shot. You know, if you have a low post player and a forward like Zeke who shoots above 70 percent, we have to get him more (shots).
“It’s not me, it’s him. He’s the guy that tells everyone he needs more. He needs more free throw attempts. He needs more catches, he needs more shots. I’m not out there playing, he is.”
Poor shot selection not only crushes Arizona’s offensive efficiency, it undermines them in other areas too. Including the other two they are desperately trying to fix.
“It’s a selfish way of playing. It hurts our defense. It hurts our fouling,” Miller said. “Number one, it hurts our ability to win and the way we play away from home. You’ve heard it a long, long time—defense and rebounding travel. Teams that really take care of the ball like Gonzaga, they win on the road. ... Say we play fast and shoot the ball quick and they don’t go in. Any team in the country can beat us. And we’re not a smart team with our shot selection and that’s on me. I think you’ll see a big change with that.”
Miller admitted he’s unsure if his team is capable of winning a conference championship the way it’s currently constructed.
He thinks Arizona can be “very successful” if it makes strides in the aforementioned areas, but will lose some games it shouldn’t if it can’t.
“That’s how I really feel about things right now for our team,” he said. “I think one of the most important parts is the team’s collective attitude. We’ve had a really good attitude. We have worked hard since we’ve gotten back from the break. You lose a game the way we lost against St. John’s, it can really get people’s attention. And I think we have our team’s attention and hopefully we’ll play well on Saturday.”