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Arizona basketball talking point: Is Gabe York’s defense improved?

Gabe York

Gabe York (No. 1) was mostly limited to a cheerleading role last season. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats sophomore Gabe York is no dummy.

He was on the outside of the playing rotation as a true freshman. He could shoot. He could dunk. He couldn’t defend.

He played in only six conference games and was on the court for 87 total minutes through the season, most of it mop-up time.

So, he did what college freshmen are supposed to do. He learned.

“Defense has always been the one thing that people are like, ‘Oh, he can’t do this well,’” said York, a 6-foot-2 guard.

“The one thing I wanted to do was prove — not just to other people but myself — that I can do this and that last year is not going to happen again. It’s time for me to step up and be a sophomore and be a role player on this team.”

He says he’s 10 pounds heavier, listed at 185. He says he improved his lateral quickness. His athleticism, which should make him a passing-lane pest, isn’t the biggest issue. It’s more want-to than how-to.

“Last year, I wanted to come in and be the best offensive player on the team, and that’s not going to work,” he said.

“Offense is still going to take care of itself for me. I’m still going to work on the things I’m good at, but it was time for me to get better at what I wasn’t really good at.

“Now, what’s enjoyment for me is locking up a defender, getting a steal and having the crowd go wild and go get a dunk.”

Arizona’s starting backcourt is point guard T.J. McConnell and shooting guard Nick Johnson — two plus-plus defenders. Combo guard Jordin Mayes, the team’s only senior, has already learned what York says he has about defense.

“I was a good defender last year. I saw that, my coaches saw that,” Mayes said.

“I started to like playing defense. It felt good knowing you could stay in front of somebody and stop them from scoring. Once you get that feeling, the sky’s the limit.

“What I’ve seen from Gabe is he’s willing to sacrifice and sit down on defense and really defend. He knows if he doesn’t play defense, he’s not going to get playing time.”

Those top three guards could eat up all or most of the combined 80 minutes per game from the backcourt spots, not leaving a lot of time for York.

But Sean Miller’s roster, while not deep, is Gumby-like flexible. He talked Wednesday about the ability to go big and to go small, using Johnson at the wing in a three-guard look. That latter lineup is more opportunity for York — as long as Miller can trust him on defense.

That was probably the theme of what York called “nine or 10″ offseason meetings with the coach.

“Our relationship just got better,” York said.

“I don’t want to say I was scared of Coach Miller, but I didn’t feel like I could go up to him. Now, our relationship has changed and I think that has helped me on the court as well.”

There were a couple of moments last season, when Mayes was struggling, when Miller gave York chances in a backup role. He didn’t stick. That was related to defense.

“Coach already had his eight to nine basketball players set in stone that were playing the roles he wanted to play,” York said. “I sort of got left out in that. At the same time, it made me work harder and come back a better basketball player because of the fact I wanted to play so bad.”

So, he’s back. Some figured he would transfer to a school where he could perhaps more quickly be a scoring and shooting star. He can definitely help the Wildcats in that area, as he is one of the best 3-point shooters on a team that has concerns about its 3-point shooting.

But it turned out to not be about offense for York. It’s about defense.

Smart kid.

“Gabe York, no longer a freshman,” Miller said.

Related: Arizona waits for NCAA to rule on Zach Peters’ eligibility

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