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Nico Mannion key to Arizona solving shooting struggles

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The Wildcats are shooting 27% from 3 over their last seven games

Utah v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats have a 3-point shooting problem.

While they are hitting at a respectable rate for the season (35.1%), they have gone ice cold in Pac-12 play, sinking just 32.5% of their triples in their 12 conference games. That mark would rank 205th in the country if extrapolated to the entire season.

It gets worse: In their last seven games, the Wildcats are shooting 27% from behind the arc and most recently shot a combined 9 for 37 (24%) in a road sweep of Cal and Stanford, roughly the same percentage they shot the week prior when they split a homestand with the Los Angeles schools.

That Arizona is 3-1 in its last four games anyway is a testament to the strides it has made in other areas of its game, particularly defense and rebounding.

“We’ve had these halves in a game, not the entire game, where it’s just a head scratcher,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “We go cold. So confidence, taking good shots, executing, being a more consistent shooting team (is key). If I put a silver lining on it, it’s not as if we just came off this red-hot shooting streak in which our offense carried us to victory. That’s the furthest thing from the way it happened. We’re an improving defensive team. We outrebounded Stanford, took care of the ball, especially at Cal, and we were able to leave with two good road wins. But this week my hope is that we can be a more efficient, better shooting team against both Oregon State and Oregon.”

If there is one player who is not shooting up to his potential it’s Nico Mannion. The freshman is only shooting 32% from 3 this season and 17% from distance over his last five games. Factor in that he is averaging a team-high 4.9 3-point attempts per game, and his misses have been a serious drain on Arizona’s offensive efficiency.

Shocking considering he is the prized prospect whose scouting report coming out of high school read “consistent 3-point shooter.”

“It’s just a matter of time before Nico breaks through,” Miller said. “Similar to Dylan (Smith), he can’t let what has happened over the last game or the last shot, affect the shot he’s taking or the next game or the next week. When you’re a young player, in particular Nico, there’s so much pressure on him to perform.”

Mannion was widely projected as a lottery pick before his college career started, and those projections really haven’t changed amid his shooting struggles. ESPN’s latest mock draft pegs him as the No. 10 overall prospect (albeit the 2020 draft class is regarded as a weak one.)

“He does a lot of other very, very important things for our team,” Miller said. “One of the aspects of his game that I’m really the most pleased with, and I think it bodes well to his future and ours, is he’s a continuing improving defensive player. He defends his man better, he’s in a better position off the ball, he makes more defensive plays for our team, he’s more consistent and that’s really helped us become a better defensive team. He did a really good job in the Bay Area in both game on that side of the basketball. ... And he’s running our team more efficiently.”

Mannion is second in the Pac-12 in assists, with an assist-to-turnover ratio hovering around 2.0, but it should be noted that it has dropped to 1.52 in Pac-12 play.

“One of the reasons that Zeke (Nnaji) had a great weekend is our guards in particular did a good job of getting him the ball in scoring position,” Miller said. “Nico was at the tail end of that a lot of different times.”

But for Arizona to separate itself in an increasingly crowded Pac-12 title race, Miller knows it needs its star point guard to start shooting the way he’s capable of.

“It’s taking good shot, it’s watching the ball go in, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this week is a big week for him,” Miller said.

Mannion not alone

Of course, not all of Arizona’s shooting struggles can be pinned on Mannion. Dylan Smith is shooting 23% from distance over his last seven games, though he showed signs of snapping that slump in the Bay Area where he shot 6 for 13 from 3 in the wins over Cal and Stanford.

“It’s great to see Dylan bounce back,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, Josh Green is shooting 29% from 3 over his last five games and 24% over his last 10 games, hoisting 2.5 per game.

“Josh took some really good shots at Stanford and Cal and takes good shots, no problem,” Miller said. “I mean, we want him to shoot it. He’s a good shooter. He may be a little bit more streaky, but as evidenced by a number of different games this year, you give him a couple open looks, he can knock them down.”