Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller, after a home loss to Oregon on Jan. 14, used his press conference opportunities to alternately blast his team’s effort and carelessness with the ball.
Neither has been a problem since then. Imagine that.
In the past three games, Arizona has played with passion and as if ball security were as precious as playing time. The Wildcats are coming off perhaps their most well-rounded game of the season Thursday night, an 85-61 victory over Washington State.
The Cats have won two of the past three games, with the loss at Colorado being avoidable if they had been merely awful from 3-point range rather than a horrific 3 of 20.
Hold the applause — considering the level of competition hasn’t been stellar — but the trends are moving in the right direction for Arizona, which is 14-7 overall and 5-3 in the Pac-12 heading into Saturday’s spotlight game against Washington.
“Teams hit their strides at different points,” Miller said. “My job is to get our team to hit that stride.”
Here’s a stride in the right direction:
Arizona averaged 15.2 turnovers through five conference games. The Cats have only 29 in the past three games.
“I was very clear that our team can’t become better unless we started to take care of the ball, not have the silly, senseless turnovers that we started this conference season doing,” Miller said.
“That’s the first step, I believe, to our team becoming a better team.”
So, the turnover situation is better.
Effort is at Arizona-good levels.
Defense, even for an undersized front line, has been a strength. Opponents are shooting 40 percent overall and 26.5 percent from 3-point range. Arizona entered the week ranked sixth nationally in 3-point defense.
“I’ve said this all along — and, really, no one cares when you lose — but we’re a good defensive team,” Miller said.
“We’ve played 21 games, against a lot of good offensive teams, and very few times have we lost because we haven’t been able to defend. Our problems have been more on offense. …
“Our offense has to keep climbing that mountain.”
That’s the X-factor.
Some nights the 3-pointers are going to fall. Some nights they’re not. Arizona can help itself by finding and taking good shots, but you never know how the roll of the dice is going to land.
Fun with numbers:
Arizona shot just 27.1 percent behind the arc in its seven losses. The Wildcats are draining 43.6 percent of its 3-point attempts in their 14 wins.
“When one guy starts hitting shots, we feed off each other,” said guard Kyle Fogg.
Said forward Solomon Hill on the team’s 3-point shooting: “Just got to stay with it. Like I tell Fogg all the time, ‘You’ve got to keep shooting.’”
On nights when the shots aren’t falling, Arizona doesn’t have a high-percentage recourse — no easy low-post scoring, especially against big front lines. But as long as the effort, defense and ball security is there, Miller should be able to squeeze as much as he can out of this team’s talent level.
And here are two more good trends: The play of junior forward Kevin Parrom and freshman point guard Josiah Turner.
When you look at the entire roster, these are the two players who can still make the most improvement — Parrom because he’s been recovering from leg injuries suffered in a Sept. 24 shooting, and Turner because his uneven adjustment to college landed him in Miller’s doghouse early in the season.
Parrom showed off his all-around game against Washington State — nine points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers. He has 27 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in the past three games, increasing his minutes to just more than 20 per game.
“Kevin Parrom in my mind, in the last three games, played very similar to how he played last year, and we have been waiting a long time for that,” Miller said.
“He’s playing with more confidence, more physical, more sure of himself. He adds a different ingredient to our team when he is able to play like he’s capable.
“It’s come very slowly, but here we are in late January, and I’d like to think he is going to be with us in true form from this point on. That alone makes us a better team.”
Turner’s game Thursday night was sullied by two second-half technical fouls and an ejection, but he finished with nine points, four assists and one turnover in 20 minutes. He is averaging nearly 10 points in the last four games, better directing the offense and being aggressive in driving to the rim.
“He just works hard every day,” Miller said. “Josiah is really on an upswing right now.”
You can say the same thing about Arizona as it prepares for its ESPN close-up on Saturday.