Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller was relentless. During the game? Yeah. After the game? Maybe more so.
The Wildcats nodded off in the first half against Oregon. In McKale Center. On CBS national television. An odd time to put out the milk and cookies.
The second half started with similar sleepiness. The Ducks went up by 17 before Solomon Hill’s one-man comeback effort led to a late-game battle. Arizona took a brief lead with less than three minutes to go, but it missed four shots in the final minute and lost 59-57, with the Cats getting what “we deserved,” Miller said.
He was just getting warmed up.
“I spent about an hour and a half this afternoon motivating, begging, pleading, yelling, screaming, subbing,” Miller said in his postgame news conference. “It’s a shame that didn’t come from within.”
As we’ve been saying, there are no easy answers for Arizona. The Cats aren’t big enough and rely too much on the 3-pointer. That isn’t going to suddenly change in the next two months. Miller knows that. That’s why he has been preaching defense and effort — two things more related to mindset, two things the Cats can control every game.
“I’m really disappointed in our team,” Miller said.
“We are not the most talented Arizona team. We certainly are not the biggest Arizona team. What we can control is collective effort, and for 20 minutes we picked and chose how hard we were going to play. …
“The hole that we dug was a lot about our effort and our concentration and readiness. And we didn’t have it.”
Good question. Can anybody answer that?
Arizona’s slow starts were a common theme early in the season. Starting slow wasn’t OK, but at least it was early in the season. Learn, get better, move on.
But the Wildcats are now past the midpoint of the regular season, past the “learning lessons” stage of the season, Miller said. He might be staring at the bottom of his bag of motivational tricks in an effort to turn up the volume on the personality of his team.
“I could sit guys on the bench, change the lineup and all that,” he said. “But in the middle of January, you’re pretty settled in to who does what. It’s a matter of all of us doing what we do better.”
The Wildcats were better in the second half. That wasn’t hard to do, but still. They had 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. They were out-rebounded by five. They allowed Oregon to shoot 48.3 percent. They made a mere two 3-pointers. They took only six free throws, making two.
Miller mocked his team’s effort on the glass in the first half.
“We didn’t even attempt to rebound,” he said. “It was too hard.”
In the second half, Arizona committed just five turnovers, out-rebounded the Ducks by six, held them to 41.7 percent shooting, made five 3-pointers and went to the line 11 times. Much better.
“It’s a shame to me — not taking anything away from Oregon’s win — but we weren’t nearly the team in the first half that we were in the second,” Miller said.
Or as Hill put it: “It sucks. The first half is the reason we lost.”
The Wildcats lost a home conference game for the first time since Feb. 21, 2010, when Arizona State won 73-69. Arizona had won 13 consecutive league games.
“It’s a funny feeling losing here,” Hill said.
“But, like Coach said, we didn’t deserve to win. You can’t just expect to come out and beat a team in the second half. It’s a 40-minute game.”
Miller has been talking about the parity in the Pac-12 (and it’s not the good kind of parity where everyone is really good) and how most games are going to come down to the final four minutes. This one did. So he was right about that.
This game just didn’t need to be that close.
“I would say the last 16 minutes of the second half, we played with great confidence and courage and played with incredible effort, and guys made great plays,” Miller said.
As for the first half … well, you know how he feels about that.
Arizona dropped to 12-6 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12, falling short of having an NCAA Tournament at-large resume. Frustration is clearly setting in.
An aggressive, focused UA team can still do plenty of damage in a weak Pac-12. But when Miller questions the player leadership on the team … it might be too much to hope for a happy ending.
“We have some challenges,” Miller said.