Wildcat basketball needs defense and sacrifice

Wildcat basketball needs defense and sacrifice
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

After the Arizona Wildcats' 58-56 loss at Oregon State on Sunday, I tweeted a couple of postgame comments from Sean Miller about his team's horrific defense in the second half.

"They just picked on individual defenders," Miller said, "and we had a couple of guys really have bad, bad nights."

Many of the replies I got were like, "Yeah, but what about the offense?!"

News flash: It's not about the offense.

We knew that this Arizona team would go through pockets of poor offense. It's not a team that has a high-volume three-point shooter or a clear-out, one-on-one, take-your-man-to-the-rim player. The Cats don't have Salim Stoudamire or Sean Elliott. We knew that.

Way back when, like before the season started, I said (really, I did) that the two most important words for Arizona basketball were "defense" and "sacrifice." That is what the Wildcats had to hang their hats on.

And so when Arizona had neither in the second half against the Beavers -- who made 11 of 17 shots from the field after halftime and got to the free throw line 17 times -- that was the aspect of the game that was most disturbing. Way more than an offense that shot 26.1 percent in the first half but found its way after the break.

If you don't believe me, just listen to coach Sean Miller:

"We couldn't get (the same stop) that a year ago we got, and that was the difference."

"I think if you have a team that picks and chooses how hard we play on defense, then I think everyone would have the right to call our team selfish."

"I would say this team, in particular, is a tremendous challenge to make sure that we're united and about Arizona and about team and about defense. And it can suck the life out of you."

OK then.

Whatever Miller is saying in public figures to be a tame version of the NSFW volcanic explosion that is going on behind the closed practice doors of the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium. If Miller is harping on all-the-time defensive effort, then that's the thing to watch tonight when 10th-ranked Arizona (14-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) returns to action against Colorado at McKale Center.

The Buffs have four returning starters back from last season's NCAA Tournament team and were picked third in this season's Pac-12 media poll, but they have scuffled to a 9-6 mark so far.

But tonight isn't about Colorado. Miller barely addressed the Buffs in his weekly press conference. It all goes back to Arizona and its defensive effort.

That's not to say Miller is laying all the blame at the feet of his players. He also talked about making tweaks within his man-to-man scheme, and he even mentioned the potential to break out a zone, a defense that usually causes him to make a face as if he just stepped into something on a sidewalk.

In the team's losses -- to UNLV and Oregon State -- the opponent has been able to isolate certain Arizona players and exploit that defensive matchup. Last year, Arizona had Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon as defensive aces, to go along with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Hollis-Jefferson is still arguably the finest defender in the conference, but the Wildcats now can't stop everybody, especially if Hollis-Jefferson is in foul trouble.

"It's 'You can't guard me, so I'm going to go right at you,'" Miller said of opponents' strategy.

"As a coach, we can't continue to sit back and say, 'Oh, it's happening again.' What is the solution? Some of it is getting guys out of the game and sitting on the bench, putting a different group in. Some of it is in our man-to-man, protecting against these matchups a little bit more."

But it's really about this, to use Miller's words: "Complete and total commitment to the effort level on defense."

Arizona made that look easy last season. Guess what? It's not last season. Johnson and Gordon were rare players that understood the value of those two key words -- defense and sacrifice -- and the rest of the team rallied around that effort. Johnson and Gordon didn't take any offensive woes to the defensive end of the court. They understood that individual honors (Johnson was Pac-12 Player of the Year) and NBA riches (Gordon was the fourth pick in the draft) would come as the team won and they showed all-the-time effort.

Miller suggested this team, so far, is collectively more concerned about how it stuffs the box score. Where is the sacrifice to stop worrying about the numbers?

"You start to think the statistics that you are going to get on offense aren't good enough to become an NBA player," Miller said. "You start to think about the NBA, and then you get a phone call or a text message after the game saying, 'You're not doing enough on offense,' and the whole thing goes to ..."

He didn't finish that sentence. You can fill in the blanks.

Welcome to today's college basketball at the Arizona level. You have to have elite talent, but elite talent usually needs a certain amount of massaging. And by "certain amount," we mean a lot.

Good news is that it's mid-January. Many teams, even elite teams, don't have everything figured out in mid-January. Kentucky certainly didn't last season. Arizona's 1997 championship team surely didn't.

Arizona's expectations this season were a Pac-12 title and, at least, a return to an NCAA Tournament regional final. The offense is, at times, going to look ugly. To get where they want to be, the Wildcats are going to have to grind on defense ... not just sometimes, all the time.

"Our effort, if it's 100 percent, playing as hard as we possibly can, I think we'll be OK," Miller said.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.