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What we learned from Arizona’s loss to Stanford

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats (5-1, 0-1 Pac-12) were outlasted by the Stanford Cardinal 78-75 on Saturday in Santa Cruz to begin their Pac-12 season.

Our recap can be found here, Sean Miller’s postgame comments can be watched/read here, and below are some additional takeaways.

The defense was so bad that Miller went to a zone—and might continue to mix it in

Stanford is known for its defense, not its offense, but you wouldn’t know it from this game.

The Cardinal shot 53 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3. They destroyed Arizona with drives early on, with their first eight made field goals coming via dunks or layups.

The Wildcats had no answer for forward Oscar da Silva, who had 21 points on 13 shots. They were also physically overmatched by Stanford’s long, athletic guards and wings, which is rare to say about an Arizona team.

The Wildcats compounded their inability to guard by making too many mental errors. Like losing track of cutters underneath the basket and not communicating well on screens, leading to open layups.

“We got out-schemed,” Miller said. “When we went small, they hurt us with second shots. Early in the game they beat us with drives. Da Silva was a hard matchup all night. In a way, if we win tonight’s game, we outscore Stanford in a shootout, which coming into the game I never would have predicted.”

Things got so untenable that Arizona went to a zone down the stretch—something, as we know, is a rarity under Miller.

Arizona had some success with it, forcing a few turnovers and causing Stanford to miss four of its final six shots. However, the two makes were backbreaking 3-pointers by Spencer Jones that gave Stanford a 73-72 lead and then a 76-72 cushion.

“It energized us and then is oftentimes the case, we gave up back-to-back 3-point shots as well,” Miller said. “We work on it almost every day. A year ago if you really watch us we sprinkled it in probably more than I have as the coach here in Arizona. And I think we will utilize it in a similar fashion this year. You have to be good at it, though. It’s like it sparked us but it also gave up back-to-back threes. I think it’s a great changeup, it’s like a curveball to our man-to-man. But we had a breakdown in that as well. I do think that we have to be smart and maybe sprinkling that in, mixing it in. A lot of times it will help take the rhythm away of the offense against our man-to-man defense because we just can’t go toe to toe for 40 minutes with our personnel, with the experience of our team this year.

“In the past, when you have guys that have been through several seasons, sometimes a team can go on a scoring run, but you settle in, you fix it, you end up really having a great defensive performance. I didn’t sense that tonight. I thought going to the zone was the right move.”

The offense overcame a rough first half to exceed expectations in its first big test

Stanford is an elite defensive team, returning most key players from last year’s squad that posted the seventh-best adjusted efficiency in the country.

It looked that way in the first half, as that unit held the Wildcats to just 26 percent shooting. The Cardinal did a great job of slogging the pace and making it a halfcourt game. Arizona, which is very much a work in progress on offense, had difficulty creating and making shots.

It was a rough reminder that this was UA’s first game away from home and against a quality opponent.

“They just played harder than us,” Arizona guard Jemarl Baker Jr. said. “They came out and just had a lot more energy, a lot more fight. And that’s really what it boiled down to. They were more physical and we weren’t ready for that early on.”

They adjusted, though, and wound up shooting 69 percent in the second half, including a 9 for 14 mark from 3. Arizona only had one assist in the first half but finished with 12.

If not for 10 turnovers and a bunch of missed free throws, it would have been their best half of the season.

“Coach got in us at halftime and just talked about defense, talked about moving the ball and things and we just came out and wanted to play hard want to play with energy, and wanted to win so I think that’s the reason why we played better,” Baker said.

For the game, Arizona shot 48 percent and averaged 1.09 points per possession. That’s better than Alabama and North Carolina fared against Stanford, and only slightly worse than Indiana.

So while the Wildcats fell short, they can take some solace in the fact that they fared pretty well against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.

“They have a lot of experience, they play hard with great effort. For us to have the offensive performance that we did, and then you kind of put an asterisk next to it because 12 for 23 from the line and 17 turnovers, we were very close to scoring 80 points in this game,” Miller said. “The way our team is we’re not going to go 11 for 23 from the 3-point line, but I do think it’s a good sign that we were able to play on offense like we did tonight. ... We have to build on it. We have a lot of first-timers and we’ll grow.”

Yeah, Baker has improved a lot

Give a lot of the credit to Baker for turning Arizona’s offense around in the second half. He proved that those huge scoring nights he had in non-conference play were no fluke. He is Arizona’s go-to guy and an elite 3-point shooter.

Baker finished with 29 points, his fourth straight game scoring in double figures. He sank eight of his 13 3-point attempts, including seven in the second half and four in a three-minute burst that gave Arizona its first lead late in the second half.

The redshirt junior is now shooting 20 for 42 (47%) from beyond the arc this season, taking a huge leap in his second year in the program.

“Offensively, he was a monster,” Miller said. “He played a great game, and he’s off to a great start. If you think about the first six games he’s played, he’s already been the Pac-12 Player of the Week once. Tonight in the second half I thought he was really, really good. And, like everybody, there’s certain things maybe defensively he could do better. But if it wasn’t for his offense, we wouldn’t have had a chance to be in the game tonight.”

You knew Baker was feeling it because Arizona rebounded one of his misses, dished it back to him, and he fired again without hesitation, that time swishing the shot.

Only one thing was on his mind.

“I’m just wanting to win, simple as that,” he said. “Other than that I didn’t play well enough for us to win, for sure. That doesn’t really matter at this point because we didn’t get the win. We just have to learn from this and continue to get better and win the next one.”

Rough night for James Akinjo

Sports are weird and Akinjo’s free throw shooting is evidence of that.

Last game, the Georgetown transfer went 14 for 14 in Arizona’s close win over UTEP, tying UA’s single-game record for percentage.

Against Stanford, Akinjo went 2 for 9 from the line, missing some huge ones down the stretch including two that could have tied the game at 68 with 3:58 left and two more that would have brought UA within one with two seconds left.

It’s hard to explain.

“He’ll bounce back, no doubt, I’m sure he was in his own head,” Miller said. “You would think anyone who would have had great confidence from the line tonight, it would have been him based on what he just did in the last game.”

Arizona got what it wanted on its final play

Despite Akinjo’s struggles at the line, he did a nice job running the offense, racking up a season-high nine assists. Down 76-75 with 12.2 seconds left, Miller opted to put the ball in his hands for the final shot and have him try to create something off the dribble.

It almost worked.

Akinjo shook his man and found a lane to the hoop, but Ziaire Williams slid over to take a game-winning charge. It was a borderline call but probably the right one.

On second look, it appears Akinjo could have dished to the red-hot Baker in the corner for a 3, though Miller didn’t seem unhappy with the decision to attack the rim.

“That’s to Stanford’s credit, they draw the charge as well as any team on our schedule,” he said.

Offensive fouls keep killing Arizona

It was pretty fitting that a charge put the nail in Arizona’s coffin. The Wildcats were whistled for seven offensive fouls, the second time this season they have been called for that many. (They were also called for seven against Grambling State.)

Miller has made it clear he doesn’t like the way the college game is being officiated, but at this point the onus is on his team to make adjustments—even if that means doing some crazy things.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many offensive fouls called,” said Miller, whose team has been whistled for 25 in six games. “One time we were dribbling from one side of the court to the other sideline, like a cross, and they drew a charge on us dribbling sideways. It’s absolutely crazy.

“We’re gonna take some charges here. I’m excited about that. We have to draw charges. We have to cross body block, we have to go vertical in the charge arc, like the NBA does. We have to leave the corner and get there late. There’s so many things that I think we have to do a better job of to make our defense better. You have to make those hard plays on the ball, on a handoff, on a dribble handoff, we teach our guys on a dribble handoff to kind of go under, like show, trail and go under. We have to go through the guy’s arm because we’re getting fouls on our handoffs because we dribble handoff and extend the arm, they’re kind of coming through to take it away. We’ve gotten a number of offensive fouls, one we got tonight on Christian (Koloko). It’s not up to the officials to adjust, it’s up to the coach, the staff and the players.”

Don MacLean must not have watched one of the best defensive teams of all-time

Stanford’s Daejon Davis and Bryce Wills are great perimeter defenders, but color commentator Don MacLean went too far when he said on the broadcast that they might be “the best tandem of wing defenders I’ve seen.”

Did he forget about the time Arizona had T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the same roster, and that that team posted the best defensive efficiency in the country by a mile?