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Arizona basketball: Bumps in the road or fundamental problems?

Sean Miller

Sean Miller is especially questioning his team’s defense of late. Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller isn’t one to panic. At least publicly.

His summation Thursday night of the state of the team — “20-4,” he said succinctly — serves both as an affirmation of Arizona’s success and as a shield to criticism.

Hard to argue with the record, right?

But this hardly seems like a time to be yelling, “Scoreboard!”

The ninth-ranked Wildcats have lost two in a row — at home to Cal and Thursday night’s game at Colorado, 71-58 — and haven’t looked good in the process.

The Bears outscored Arizona 17-2 at the start of the second half and led by double digits.

The Buffs outscored UA 20-4 during a 9 minute, 41 second stretch that spanned halftime and led by as many as 15.

“We played hard,” Miller said in his postgame press conference Thursday. “It wasn’t as if I was yelling at our guys to play harder.”

Arizona is still a nicely constructed team, blending size and athleticism, experience and youth. Add a dash of moxie and energy, and sprinkle in some luck, and the Wildcats can be the team that emerged with a 12-0 non-conference record, beating Florida, Miami and San Diego State.

But nothing on the Wildcats is such a strength that they can afford to be off on another part of their game.

A couple of key issues:

–Arizona has become a passive jump-shooting team that, 24 games into the season, continues to launch quick 3-pointers in a possession. The Cats average 21.3 3-point attempts in conference play, the second-highest mark in the league.

On Thursday night, Mark Lyons ended CU’s 20-4 run with a 3-pointer and then, emboldened by the make, came down on the next possession and swiftly heaved a shot from Steve Kerr-land. Lyons is no Steve Kerr. Too often, that is a microcosm of the offense.

Almost half of the shots from Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom have been 3-point attempts (310 of 655, 47.3 percent). That is well beyond their career standards and too high for players of their driving ability. They are making 37.1 percent of their 3-point shots, which is good, but the entire team has slipped here in conference play and more selectivity is needed.

Arizona has failed to reach 60 points twice in the past five games. It is now being out-shot in conference games (42.8 percent to 42.1 percent). Too many jump shots.

–Defense. Arizona has trouble guarding guys who are 6-6. Oregon’s E.J. Singler. UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad. Cal’s Allen Crabbe. Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie. Those are the four guys who are most responsible for UA’s four losses. UA’s best perimeter defense, Nick Johnson, is 6-3.

Arizona allowed Cal to shoot 65.2 percent in the second half on Sunday. The Cats gave up 59.1 percent shooting in the second half to Colorado. Crabbe and Dinwiddie each scored 19 points in the second half to thwart any UA comeback attempts.

Perhaps the good news is it has taken a couple of epic efforts to bring down the Cats.

“Our defense has been what has gotten us to this point,” Miller said Thursday night. “If you look at tonight or against Cal, our last two losses, our defense has had a hard time getting stops. We really have. Some of it is very good play by the other team and some of it is us.”

It could be just a bump, or two, in the road. No team in the country this season is immune. But, right now, the 20-4 record — boosted by a couple of great escapes — isn’t as soothing as it should be.

“It’s never as bad as its seems and the sky isn’t falling,” Miller said. “For all I know we can go to Utah, play a great game, then we have two home games after that and we get back on track.”

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