Wildcat hoops: How to make the D-list

Wildcat hoops: How to make the D-list
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now

After three losses to inferior teams not likely to make the NCAA Tournament, the Arizona Wildcats are looking for a killer instinct. Or at least a few good kills.

That latter thing isn't just an inappropriately over-the-top expression for how hard Sean Miller's team needs to play every time they put their Nikes on the hardcourt. You won't find it in the box score, but a "kill" for the Cats is a tangible thing. It's a stat tracked and honored by the coaching staff.

A kill is recorded when the opponent doesn't score on three consecutive trips down the court -- a missed shot, a turnover, whatever. Miller loves his kills.

"Generally speaking, you start to get five or more kills (in a game), you begin to figure out, guess what, you win most of the time," Miller said this week on his radio show.

"It's something we give feedback to on timeouts. I think it creates a sense of pride with our team to be a great defensive team, and it rewards what we're really trying to do, which is use our defense to push the ball.

"When you start to get three-in-a-row stops throughout the game, it's very difficult for that other team to win."

Miller is going on the verbal offense to get his team back into a defensive stance after the Wildcats dropped an 81-78 decision at Arizona State last Saturday in which the Sun Devils shot 50 percent for the game and had just one second-half stretch in which they went scoreless on three consecutive possessions. That wasn't enough. Arizona couldn't quite catch up.

Seventh-ranked Arizona will try again tonight, back on the road at Washington, which is having to play small-ball after the recent dismissal of Robert Upshaw, who was the nation's leading shot-blocker at the time. The Huskies, after an 11-0 start to the season, are only 3-8 in Pac-12 games, having lost five in a row.

But they still have one of the best backcourts in the West with point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews, so there is danger lurking. And don't be shocked if Washington plays its best game of the season tonight. That seems to happen when Arizona shows up in somebody else's gym. UNLV, Oregon State and ASU say hello.

"Washington, like a lot of teams, is going to be very, very good at home," Miller said. "They have a great home court. They are confident at home. They shoot the ball well at home."

As this season goes along, you get a further appreciation for how good Arizona was defensively last season, when it had Nick Johnson on the perimeter and Aaron Gordon in the interior, to go along with pesky T.J. McConnell at point guard and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson doing his Plastic Man imitation all over the court.

Hollis-Jefferson and McConnell lead the defensive effort this season, with 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski offering solid rim protection that sometimes goes unnoticed because of his offensive struggles, but it hasn't been the same as last season.

Most teams would love to have Arizona's defensive stats -- the Cats allow just 40.2 percent shooting and lead the nation in lowest percentage of offensive rebounds allowed -- but that defense hasn't always traveled well. Which is weird. That's one thing everybody always says -- defense travels.

The red flags raised in those losses include an inability to stop penetration. Hollis-Jefferson can guard four positions on the floor, just not all at once. But while there are some very real one-on-one defensive deficiencies with others on the roster, Miller also alludes to a collective wavering focus. It's a team thing, and it's the kind of thing that can get corrected before the elimination part of the schedule begins.

"I'm very proud of what we are right now," Miller said. "And I think it's so much more about where we go from here.

"Even if we were 23-0, it's so much about where we go from here, how we finish, how we play our best basketball at the key moment of the season. We're pointing toward that. So, 20-3, I think we walk around with our head held high, and at the same time, nobody feels good about our performance on Saturday."

You could probably make the case that Arizona is squeezing whatever it can out of its offense. The Wildcats, in conference-games only, are third in scoring (73.3 points per game), third in shooting percentage (48.0) and second in free throw percentage (75.0). Arizona won't be a prolific 3-point shooting team, but you can't have everything.

What Miller really wants is more kills -- those momentum-altering, game-changing defensive stops. Going back through his record-keeping, he says this year's team isn't far off the "kill" pace from last season, but his defense also is not as consistent.

The Washington trip would be a good time to show that killer instinct.

"We have to come with the mindset that we're kind of cornered," McConnell said. "We play our best when we're like that."

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.