TUCSON, Arizona — Losing never feels good when it happens, but if handled properly, it can end up being a positive in the long run. That’s Arizona coach Sean Miller’s story and he’s sticking to it.
“There are stories in sports every year that are much — even worse than ours — that at some point later that same season that group, that team, that coach can look back and say the best thing that happened to this year’s team was what we learned. In our case, when we lost three games in a row in the Battle 4 Atlantis,” Miller said Tuesday, a few days removed from the Wildcats’ dreadful performance in a holiday tournament in the Bahamas.
“Now it’s up to us to make that come true, to learn from that.”
Arizona entered the tournament ranked No. 2 in the country, having blown out its first three opponents by an average of 30.3 points per game. By the time the Wildcats left Paradise Island on Saturday, they were 3-3, riding their first three-game skid in eight years.
And the Wildcats fell out of the Associated Press Top 25, ending a streak of 100 consecutive weeks in the poll. The last time Arizona was unranked was at the end of the 2011-12 season.
Arizona lost 90-84 to North Carolina State, a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference, then fell 66-60 to an SMU club that isn’t expected to contend for the American Athletic Conference title. The Wildcats were then crushed 89-64 in the seventh-place game by Purdue, which itself struggled in the Bahamas before righting itself against Arizona.
So what went wrong? Where should we start?
Arizona’s defense in the Bahamas was horrendous almost from start to finish. N.C. State was the first team to score 90 points or more in regulation against Arizona in more than seven years. SMU had 18 offensive rebounds, and Purdue shot 57 percent and was 11 of 22 from 3-point range.
Opponents are grabbing 29.2 percent of offensive rebounds against the Wildcats, up from 25.7 percent last season, and are shooting 38 percent from deep, up from 31 percent last season.
Miller said defensive rebounding and 3-point defense are “two things we can really control with our group” but that means having his players want to do well in those areas. Freshman forward DeAndre Ayton is No. 6 in the nation in defensive rebounds, averaging 12.0 per game.
Arizona lacks a defensive stopper, a role Kadeem Allen filled last season as a senior. His absence is felt on almost every possession, particularly the ones where a guard blows by whomever is guarding him on the perimeter and either gets to the basket or kicks out to an open 3-point shooter.
“We feel his void right now,” Miller said.
Arizona doesn’t need to play lockdown defense when it has two tremendous scorers in Ayton (20.3 points per game) and junior guard Allonzo Trier (24.5), but depending on scoring every possession isn’t going to work either.
“Instead of developing a stopper I think we just have to find a guy who can get a stop. We don’t need him to be Lawrence Taylor, we just need him to touch the quarterback,” Miller said.
The answer could be sophomore wing Rawle Alkins, but when he returns from a broken foot is still uncertain. The original timetable was eight to 12 weeks; Wednesday will mark nine weeks since he had surgery.
“He wouldn’t have been able to play in Bahamas, but if we were in a single-elimination situation right now, like the Pac-12 tourney, he probably would be able to play,” Miller said. “He’s able to do some non-contact things in practice from time to time.”
In the meantime, a third different starter will take Alkins’ spot Wednesday against Long Beach State. Miller said freshman Brandon Randolph, who had a career-best 17 points against Purdue, will get the nod after freshman Emmanuel Akot and redshirt sophomore Dylan Smith split the first six starts.
“I feel like I’m back to my normal self,” said Randolph, who suffered a concussion during the preseason and missed the opener against Northern Arizona. “I think that last game allowed me to get my flow back. I’m just doing what Coach wants me to do. I just know I got into a rhythm and I took advantage of that.”
The lineup switch is the only notable change Miller said he plans to make for the time being. There are no plans to scrap Arizona’s man-heavy defensive schemes or run the offense less through Ayton and Trier.
“I’ve always believed you have to honor the process,” Miller said. “When you lose three in a row you can’t create a new process. We have tremendous upside.”
Long Beach State (3-4), of the Big West, has played the sixth-toughest schedule in the country, per KenPom.com, with its last five games against Power 5 teams.
After that, Arizona starts an eight-day gauntlet against unbeaten UNLV, unbeaten Texas A&M and an Alabama team that would have a perfect record had it not finished its last game with just three players.
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