Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller talked about it just last weekend. Defense. It’s not so easy to turn it on after you’ve turned it off.
And it was so off Wednesday night. Way, way off.
The Cats couldn’t flip the switch against USC. They stumbled and bumbled around the Galen Center, losing to the Trojans 89-78 in a damaging game to Arizona’s NCAA Tournament seeding and hopes of winning the Pac-12 championship.
“This was our worst defensive performance of the year,” Miller said in his postgame radio interview on 1290-AM, “and it couldn’t have happened at a worst time.”
Arizona gave up a 3-point play to forward Eric Wise 15 seconds into the game and just kept on giving up easy baskets.
USC shot 58.1 percent in the first half and 65.2 percent in the second half. The five players the Trojans used in the post positions combined to make 19 of 25 shots.
“Just a complete breakdown,” Miller said.
“Many times when you can’t guard on the perimeter, you have to help. And as you help, it leads to a lot of bad things. Our perimeter defense was poor at best. We had no ability to defend, really, at any of three positions.
“When you can’t do that, it opens up everything: offensive rebounds, layups and dunks. A lot of the 2s that happened were the result of dribble penetration and our defense breaking down.”
To wit: USC point guard Jio Fontan had nine assists.
It was just that kind of night for the Trojans.
They had five players reach double-digit points, led by Wise with 22.
“A lot had to do with USC — I’ll give them credit — but a lot had to do with us breaking down,” Miller said. “We were undisciplined, going for shot fakes, not being in the right positions.”
He predicted something like this could happen. That’s why he was steamed after the team’s 73-56 win over Washington State on Saturday. The Cougars shot 52.2 percent in the second half, and Miller fretted about a potential carryover effect into the next game.
It got so bad Wednesday night that Miller, loathe to spend a possession not playing his brand of man-to-man defense, ended up playing a 2-3 zone with about eight minutes left in the game. It didn’t much matter. Wise soon worked his way into the lane for a couple of mid-range jumpers to help stiff-arm Arizona down the stretch.
It’s perplexing. Miller has, at times, called this his best defensive team. He’s probably also calling it some other things right about now.
Whatever it is, it’s not getting better.
Arizona is 23-5 overall, but all those dozen non-conference victories seem like years ago. At this point, the Wildcats’ resume exceeds their reality. The reality is Arizona is no better than six or seven Pac-12 teams on most nights.
In fact, Arizona is just 3-5 against the top seven teams in the conference standings.
In its five losses, the Wildcats have allowed their opponents to shoot a collective 52.9 percent (145 of 274).
Perhaps this is just a statistical oddity, but there is a common theme in all of Arizona’s losses: The main tormentor has been 6-foot-6.
Oregon’s E.J. Singler had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad scored 23 points. Cal’s Allen Crabbe had 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie posted 21 points and seven assists.
Wise made 9 of 12 shots en route to a season-high point total.
“They had a number of players we just could not guard individually,” Miller said.
The 89 points were the most yielded by Arizona in a regulation game since a 95-71 loss at Cal on Feb. 25, 2010. Miller chalked up his team’s poor defensive showing to part effort, part concentration and part to USC doing an excellent job.
In any case, it leaves the Cats with some soul searching to do with two games left in the regular season.
–Has Miller been too stubborn about sticking with his man-to-man defense?
–Given the spotty effort of late, have the players tuned out the coaches late in the season?
“Getting our defense back as we turn the calendar to March is pivotal for us,” Miller said.
Arizona is good, not great, on offense. Any kind of happy March will have to start on defense. Miller is in his fourth season at UA, and we know he’s most comfortable with that identity of having a tough, physical team that makes the opponent work tirelessly for any point.
Whatever happened to “No easy baskets?”
Instead, Arizona too often lately has been back to its so kind and compliant “milk and cookies” defense of Miller’s first season.
“When you practice 80-some times, do all the different things we’ve done, and you establish yourself as a quality defensive team, it’s a shame when it leaves you at the moment you need it the most. But that’s what has happened to us right now,” Miller said.
“Our quest, obviously, is to get it back.”