Sean Miller knows what works against the Arizona Wildcats.
“Keep us out of transition, rebound...and just really keep us in front,” he said.
In other words, make the Wildcats execute in the halfcourt and, if possible, prevent them from getting the ball inside to Zeke Nnaji and force their streaky shooters to beat you.
The Wildcats are 1-3 in their four slowest-paced games of the season, including Saturday’s loss to UCLA, the most deliberate game of the season.
Not so coincidentally, Arizona posted its worst shooting percentage ever in McKale Center that night, shooting 25.4 percent from the field. They struggled with UCLA’s physicality around the basket, going 6 for 20 on layups, and couldn’t make them pay on the perimeter, shooting 6 for 23 from 3, including 0 for 12 in the second half.
With no easy baskets coming in transition, it made for one of the ugliest nights in recent Arizona basketball history.
“It was a different game,” said junior forward Ira Lee. “They’re very physical, they play hard, but they also play really, really slow tempo. And coming off USC, USC was more up-and-down, and then you get to UCLA and you know if you get a bucket, then they’re going to take about 90 percent of the shot clock to get their bucket. So it was a different feeling, something we’re not used to, especially with the young group that we have.”
The Wildcats are not only young, with three freshmen unprecedentedly leading them in almost every statistical category, but they have very little experience playing together, the byproduct of adding eight newcomers.
Arizona ranks No. 312 (of 351) in the country in a stat called “minute continuity” which more or less measures how much returning players are contributing this season. Miller said that kind of youth and discontinuity can make it easier to get frustrated when the pace slows down and the need to pay attention to detail goes up.
“It’s almost like the other team's not cooperating if they’re not running with you,” Miller said. “It’s not that we’re trying to score 110 points, but we like to push the ball and play at a faster tempo. You cannot speed up a good team that is going to rebound, play solid defense, take care of the ball, and walk the ball up.
“And UCLA’s tempo is much, much different than SC’s tempo. On Thursday night, SC plays a pretty fast tempo and the game feels right. Well, two days later, you play UCLA and UCLA is playing a Baylor-type of style. I thought that their style affected us because it’s kind of like time of possession. If you shoot a quick shot and it’s just ill-advised or a tough shot, then you’re going to go on defense sometimes for 25, 30 seconds.
“If, for example, you foul on that possession, foul in the last 10 seconds, you might be on defense for up to 45 seconds, and then they score and now you’re down six, you’re down four. What do you want to do? You want to make a play, you want to get things right. Well, you’re tempted to do it quickly. Well, it starts to work against you unless that ball goes in. And again, the better the other team is, the more difficult it is to score in the first 15, 10 seconds of the possession, no matter what style they choose.”
Arizona’s offensive woes against UCLA bled into its defense, which allowed the Bruins to shoot 51 percent from the field and 56 percent in the second half.
Similar things happened at Oregon State, the fourth-slowest game the Wildcats have played in this year. The Beavers, notoriously deliberate on offense, wore the Wildcats down with their set plays, shooting 65 percent in the second half and blowing the game open en route to a 17-point victory.
Against UCLA “we reached in at the end of the clock, we gave up key second shots, especially in the second half,” Miller said. “First half, not as many. And when you don’t get defensive stops, you can’t get out and run. When you can’t get out and run and you’re us, it kind of takes away something you’re good at. So you’re almost playing without that and it doesn’t mean you’re going to lose or you can’t win, but you’re going to win in a different way.
“But being able to win hard-fought games, being able to win a game away from home, being able to play with a big lead, those are all things that we’re probably not as good at as we need to be. And my hope is that we keep improving and I and our staff do a good job teaching these guys.”
Miller talked about pace for 10 minutes straight at his Tuesday presser, and has been preaching patience on both sides of the ball in practice this week as well.
A sneaky tough road game at Cal looms Thursday. The Golden Bears, 10-3 at home, rank 326th in the country in pace, slogging games down even more than the Bruins.
“But also he goes back to the main thing is rebounding, getting stops,” Lee said. “If we do those two things, then people can’t control our tempo. So if we stick to those two principles this weekend, I think we’ll be fine.”