There are times when Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller comes into a postgame press conference with a specific message. Saturday was one of those days.
Yes, he praised the effort of senior wing Kevin Parrom, who scored a season-high 19 points, saving Arizona with a flurry of three 3-pointers in a 72-second span of the second half as the Cats held off Washington State, 73-56.
And Miller talked some about the recent improvement of freshman 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, who scored a career-high 12 points.
Most of his other time at the interview table, spanning nearly 13 minutes, was spent talking like a disappointed father about this theme: (Take your pick of the money quote):
“On defense, there is another level that is required, and we’re not there.”
“We pick and choose how hard we play on defense.”
“It’s so hard to turn it back on, effort-wise, when you turn it off.”
“We’re not anywhere near where we need to be on defense.”
“It’s terrible. It’s not going to work.”
“It’s all effort. One hundred percent.”
Miller twice referred to his team’s disappearing defense as a “quandary.” Despite what looks like a safe and comfortable margin of victory, Arizona let a 22-point second half lead get sliced in half because of a sleepy defense that allowed Washington State to shoot 52.2 percent in the second half and get to the free-throw line 22 times after the break.
If not for Parrom’s shooting touch, this game might have become unnecessarily interesting.
“I’m really excited that we’re 23-4,” Miller said.
“I could have come in here and given you all the ‘Hey, we’re great,’ or ‘We played some great basketball.’ But with what we’re trying to accomplish moving forward … we’re in a real quandary. We do not play hard on defense.”
Well, at least not for 40 minutes.
Arizona held the Cougars without a field goal for exactly 10 minutes in the first half, but, as has frequently happened lately, the second half was different story.
–Stanford shot 45.2 percent in the second half after hitting 29.6 before the break.
–Cal shot 65.2 percent after halftime in a win over Arizona.
–Colorado was at 59.1 percent in the second half in its victory over the Cats.
“We practice hard. Our focus is right. We’re talking about the right things,” Miller said. “But performance is the only thing that matters at this time of year.
“For our team to perform like we did against Washington State in today’s second half … it’s a sign of where we are.”
Not a good sign.
Arizona is big enough, experienced enough, athletic enough to be well above average on defense. As Miller has said repeatedly, tenacious man-to-man defense needs to be this team’s calling card. Not some of the time, all the time.
“There are a few things we can do better as a team, but we have to keep practicing to get better on defense,” Parrom said.
Arizona is not elite offensively. It aspires to be efficient, to take good shots. But there is no first-round talent available to bail out the offense; no Sean Elliott for the clear-out; no Khalid Reeves; no Damon Stoudamire.
As such, Arizona’s half-court offense often slows to a slog, especially against zones. The defense needs to get its fair share of stops to fuel easier transition points. So when the Cats are giving up baskets at an alarming percentage, it’s a double-whammy to the team’s production.
“We have worked really hard, practiced 80 times, and I’m proud of a lot of things, but right now, that’s not going to work,” Miller said of the defense. “Guys gotta try. And that’s disappointing.”
He says it’s not a matter of players failing to understand the defense or where to be on the court. Miller calls it a lack of intensity, a failure to focus and pay attention to detail.
“Our team is having a hard time playing very hard for 40 minutes,” Miller said.
That’s what might make Arizona the most frustrating 23-4 team in the country. “Effort” is often used as a fallback explanation when things don’t go well, but, in this case, the description appears accurate.
Identifying the problem is step one. Miller did that long ago. The question is, why is effort a persistent, and perhaps growing, problem?
“I don’t know,” he said Saturday.
At least he delivered the message.