Arizona basketball: Sean Miller still searching for consistent defensive intensity
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona freshman Brandon Randolph watched the ball rotate to his side of the floor and was late getting out to a shooter on the wing.
The Long Beach State player made the open shot and Randolph jogged back on offense.
Wildcats coach Sean Miller saw the play unfold and turned a dark shade of red.
"What is he doing?!" Miller screamed to one of his assistants, his voice cracking from yelling so loud. "What is he doing?!"
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All Miller wanted to talk about afterward was the lack of effort he saw on defense; failing to rotate out on shooters, getting beat off the dribble, lack of help and rim protection, not hustling back after a missed shot or a made basket.
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"We've had our moments over the last six, seven years where you watch a group (let down), but I don't know if I've seen a group that can't bring it, can't work, can't really fight defensively," Miller said. "Man, is it disappointing."
Arizona's season started under a dark cloud after assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was arrested as part of a federal investigation into bribes and kickbacks in college basketball recruiting. Richardson is no longer with the program, but an air of uncertainty hangs over Arizona and could remain for the rest of the season. The Wildcats' performance on the court, meanwhile, has done nothing to distract fans from it.
Arizona (4-3) managed to overcome its defensive deficiencies to win its first three games. There were breakdowns, but doing it against Northern Arizona, UMBC and Cal State-Bakersfield did not hurt the Wildcats.
Those mistakes were exposed last week in the Bahamas, when Arizona lost to North Carolina State, SMU and Purdue at the Battle 4 Atlantis. After the 0 for 3 run, the Wildcats became the first team since Louisville in 1986 to drop out of the AP Top 25 from No. 2 and are unranked for the first time since 2012.
Miller and his coaches stressed defense in the practice days since the Bahamas, yet were not pleased with their effort against the 49ers after returning to McKale Center on Wednesday night.
"We really struggled to play with great effort and I don't think we're going to be very successful until that's fixed," Miller said. "We're a lifeless group a lot of times."
Arizona is a young team, so some growing pains are to be expected. What has disappointed Miller is that the veteran leaders of the team, namely Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, have not provided the spark to get them going.
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In the past under Miller, Arizona always had at least one player who provided the energy and emotion to push the Wildcats to another level, like Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson. T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Kadeem Allen was that player last season, an elite defender who played with an intensity that was infectious.
Arizona does not have that type of player, at least yet. Miller has derided Trier, a junior, for not being more than just a scorer. He singled out Jackson-Cartwright, a senior, on Wednesday night for not setting the defensive tone consistently.
"We need a couple of our veterans, we need guys who have been here and done it before to really embody the qualities of playing hard, playing together, being in the right spot," Miller said.
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Arizona could add the hard-working, emotional player it needs soon. Sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, a physical, high-energy player, broke his foot during preseason practices and has yet to play this season. He is closer to being cleared and could provide the Wildcats a big lift when he returns.
"He's a really big part of our team, bigger than maybe any of us realized because there's such a drop off emotionally, there's such a drop off physically without him," Miller said.
Even when Alkins does return, there will be an adjustment period. So for the Wildcats to get better now and after Alkins returns, they'll need more consistent contributions from their highly touted freshmen.
Deandre Ayton, a potential top-five NBA draft pick next summer, has been steady all season, averaging 19.3 points and 11.6 rebounds while creating match-up nightmares for opponents.
The rest of the freshmen have played well at times, not so well others.
"When I was watching the Bahamas games, I can only watch the TV copy and I kept seeing the No. 3 recruiting class in the country pop up on the screen like 75 times," Miller said. "I find myself saying, where'd you go?'"
The Wildcats need them to show up and find some kind of defensive spark. They play at UNLV on Saturday, Texas A&M in Phoenix next week.