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Sean Miller worries most about defense as Arizona suffers first defeat of season

Sean Miller

Sean Miller saw his team allow Oregon to make 7 of 11 3-point shots. Photo by Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats’ unbeaten season wasn’t going to last forever.

So, Sean Miller’s fourth-ranked team lost at Oregon on Thursday. The Ducks are good. Better than good. Plenty of Arizona teams have left Eugene with a loss as baggage: The 1997 team that won the national championship, the 2001 team that played for the national championship.

“We lost to a team that played an exceptional game on their home court,” Miller said in his interview on 1290-AM after the 70-66 defeat.

“It’s not easy to win every game, and certainly to win on the road on college basketball is difficult. I believe that Oregon is not only one of the best teams in our conference, they are a Top 25 team nationally. We knew we would have to have great performance to win.”

If you just parachuted into Arizona’s season this morning — exactly at the halfway point of the regular season — you’d look at the record and be happy with a 14-1 mark. Neither the record, nor the ranking, is the problem. They are as good as could be expected.

But if you’ve been following along since the preseason, one chapter at a time, charting the progress and the process, then you’re probably getting a little uneasy.

Thrilling close victories (Florida, San Diego State) were followed by uncomfortably close victories (Colorado, Utah) … and now a close loss.

With four new players in the mix — we’ll exclude freshman guard Gabe York, who is barely playing, if at all, these days — Arizona was supposed to show steady improvement. Instead, the Cats are flat-lining.

Couple of things:

* Three-point defense. One of the things that Miller’s team did best the past two seasons has become one of the worst. The past three opponents have shot 50 percent from behind the arc (24 of 48). Hey, sometimes the other guy just makes them. But a 15-game trend in which the opponent is shooting 37.6 percent from behind the arc suggests more than bad luck is at play.

“My biggest concern about our team is that we’ve lost our defense,” Miller said.

“I’m telling you, from a defensive perspective we really struggled. We have to get that back. It’s very difficult to win on the road against a great team when, from a defensive performance, you just don’t have it.

“It’s not like we were like that for 40 minutes, but for a significant portion of the game … we were not good enough to win.”

* Disappearing offense. Arizona is superb in transition. But when the Cats can’t run and get easy baskets, they get stuck in transition without a pass-first point guard and young big men who don’t always finish with an appropriate percentage. Freshman 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski has struggled in three conference games, hitting 38.1 percent (8 of 21).

Arizona has had a significant drought in each of the past four games, all of which have gone down to the wire:

San Diego State: Went scoreless for 4:24 from the first half into the second half, going from up four points to down six.

Colorado: Scored one point in 8:13, going from a tie game to down 13.

Utah: Went scoreless for 5:56 when its 10-point lead was trimmed to three.

Oregon: Scored only two points in final 5:29 of first half, going from a four-point deficit to an 11-point deficit.

Not being able to guard the 3-point shot and effectively run a half-court offense is no way to be when March comes around. Good thing March isn’t coming around for seven more weeks.

The record, the rankings and the grand escapes were fun, but ultimately an illusion. Arizona isn’t the third-best team, or the fourth-best team, in the country. At least right now.

For much of the season, the Cats have been the only Pac-12 team in the Top 25, but we can see they aren’t going to be the runaway winner in the league. It will be as it almost always is: Win your home games and get splits on the road.

Hmmm … a 14-4 league mark is looking pretty good right now.

The loss at Oregon is no reason to panic.

But the hardest work of the season begins now.


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