Arizona will remain a fringe program until it improves its defenseby Javier Morales on Jan. 21, 2011, under Sports
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The one constant in Arizona’s four losses this season: The Wildcats did not have an answer for the opponent’s marquee player or players.
Kansas twins Markieff and Marcus Morris combined for 31 points on 11-of-19 shooting from the field in the Jayhawks’ 87-79 win on Nov. 27 in Las Vegas.
BYU All-American guard Jimmer Fredette had 33 points (on 11 of 22 shooting from the field) and nine rebounds on Dec. 11 at Salt Lake City.
Oregon State’s Jared Cunningham, a viable All-Pac-10 player, scored 18 points on only 3 of 10 shooting but he nailed 10-of-11 free throw attempts on Jan. 2 in Corvallis.
And Thursday night during Arizona’ 85-68 loss to Washington in Seattle, Isaiah Thomas — who just might steal that Pac-10 Player of the Year honor from Derrick Williams — gave a clinic on how to break down an opponent’s defense.
Thomas used ball-screens and his quickness off the dribble to penetrate and score 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting with 10 assists (with one turnover) and six rebounds.
“Some of their other players are very good, but Thomas has an amazing ability to use ball screens to score himself or get other people in a position to score,” Milller told reporters afterward. “It is much simpler to stop a player from doing one of the two, but when he can do both its almost impossible. Washington does a great job putting players in the right position, and some of their best baskets came off Thomas passes.
“When he has the ball in his hands, a lot of bad things happen for you.”
Things got bad for Arizona against Thomas, especially in a hostile environment with an unfavorable defensive track record (particularly on the perimeter) this year.
A significant factor contributing to Arizona’s “milk-and-cookies defense” is the lack of stoppers on the perimeter, where the development of the opposing offense starts. Milk and cookies refers to Miller joking early this season that the Wildcats offered the opponent milk and cookies to the opposing best player a year ago.
Entering this weekend’s games, Arizona ranked last in the Pac-10 in steals with only 18 in five league games. Cunningham had a league-leading 20 on his own. Overall, the Wildcats were No. 8 in turnover margin (minus-0.3) while Washington was No. 1 (plus-4.3).
Why are steals and turnovers so important to Arizona’s execution on offense and defense? They can lead to transition baskets on the other end, thereby making those darn 2-3 zones obsolete. They can make the primary ballhandler — the point guard — that much more of a necessary focal point, finding the open man for higher percentage shots.
The lack of these opportunities is a significant reason why Lamont “MoMo” Jones has struggled to stay afloat with his assist-to-turnover ratio. He can be efficient in the open court, but has not been afforded many chances to operate that way.
The Morris twins, Fredette, Cunningham and Thomas got a majority of their points by getting good looks at the basket in transition or by simply breaking down Arizona’s defense in their halfcourt sets. Not one of these players had an off-night against the Wildcats.
That should cause plenty of concern for Miller, who will guide his team Saturday against two potential All-Pac-10 players in Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto of Washington State.
When Washington started to pull away in the last five minutes Thursday, the Fox Sports Net cameras caught fiery UA assistant Archie Miller laying into the Wildcats about their defensive effort, or lack thereof. The younger Miller, who will be a head coaching candidate somewhere at season’s end (North Carolina State anyone?), did not need to, ahem, curse or point fingers at anyone.
His stare alone caused the temperature to dip inside old Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Arizona, although ranked No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll this week, has not turned the corner. The Wildcats have not shown the ability to beat college basketball’s elite the last couple of years.
Until the UA puts a stopper on the perimeter in the same mold as Kenny Lofton, Reggie Geary, Jason Terry and Jason Gardner, the Wildcats will remain a fringe team and program. Guys like Lofton, Geary, Terry and Gardner cared more than anything about the most significant number of the game — the final score — not their point production or minutes played.