The Pac-10 regular-season championship. The national rankings. The Pac-10 Player of the Year and All-American honors for Derrick Williams. The Pac-10 Coach of the Year award for Sean Miller.
All now in the past.
It is as Miller said in the CBS interview following the team’s regular-season-ending victory over Oregon on Saturday: “We have to add some defense to the equation starting from this point forward.”
That point forward begins Thursday afternoon against Oregon State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament.
The game begins at about 3:40 p.m. Tucson time from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Starting with this game, it’s all about defense.
Arizona’s 3-point defense has been excellent for most of the season against non-Jimmer opponents. The Wildcats entered the week second in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot just 28.0 percent.
It’s defending the area right around the basket that has been the problem. When teams are shooting from no more than 5 feet, they tend to score a lot of points.
Arizona allowed Oregon to shoot 51.7 percent on Saturday. Oregon State shot 50 percent in the game before that. UCLA made 52.8 percent from the field. Two games before that, Washington hit on 54.0 percent.
So, four of Arizona’s past five opponents have made at least half of their shots, the exception being USC. And the Trojans did hit 50 percent of their two-pointers but was only 1 of 10 from behind the arc).
“We’ve been almost a top 50 team in the country defensively, and there is no reason why we can’t be even better down the stretch,” Miller said.
Well, if there is a reason, it’s lack of size. Williams, for all his offensive skill and versatility, often has to defend a bigger post player — and that’s not good.
Arizona tries to get by with the athleticism of Jamelle Horne and the grittiness of Jesse Perry at power forward, although, at 6-7, they, too, are usually giving up height and pounds on defense. Backup center Kyryl Natyazhko flashed signs of useful production in the final two weeks, and he is a significant X-factor in the postseason.
When Arizona tries to double-team the post to compensate for its lack of size, it needs good rotation and communication to make it work. Those attributes were missing late in the season.
Big men have tossed Arizona around near the basket. That’s true even for Oregon State’s unheralded big men — 6-10 Angus Brandt and Joe Burton (6-7, 280). They combined to put in 19 of 30 shots vs. the Wildcats this season.
“To me, it’s a question of what our defense can become,” Miller said.
“Can we regain some of what we’ve had for a long time? Can we improve? Can we address some things? If we can, then I think we can have a special month of March.”