New year, new U … of A?
At least for one game when it comes to the Arizona Wildcats. It doesn’t hurt to have a mediocre-to-bad (shooting) Arizona State go into McKale Center and shoot like their life didn’t depend on it.
Still, Arizona looked much improved in its 75-47 win over ASU after coach Sean Miller sat down with his team to hammer home some key directives and some new-and-improved roles. He used words like “proud and happy” in describing his emotions about his team as it broke a two-game slide and a rare two-game slide to ASU dating back to last season.
But that was so last year and 2020 will bring on a new vision and version for his Wildcats. Again, temper that by knowing it was ASU.
Miller said UA took the last 12 days to practice hard and made every effort to be better. Of course, now is the time to start doing that given the NCAA tournament is just 2 ½ months away.
It also helped that Arizona’s big three – all freshmen in Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji – all stepped up (new roles?) to combine for 39 of UA’s 75 points.
“I thought they really responded to the things that we’re asking to do better,” Miller said.
Miller also reminded his media audience there were seven new faces from last year that played in the game, but isn’t that the case every year given the state of come-and-go college basketball?
“I’ve probably done a better job of clarifying roles,” Miller admitted about two minutes into his post-game talk with the media. “It’s something I wish I would have done a little bit earlier, but the guys know what to do and what’s expected. They’re trying to become a better team.”
Yes, Arizona played better than it had – again temper that given the opponent.
But it came out and played suffocating defense, giving it a nice cushion to begin the game. ASU looked like it had been hit early – and was – and could never recover. It was so backpedaling for ASU it missed its first six … free throws. Arizona cruised to the victory, its largest since beating ASU 99-61 in 2016.
But more about Arizona, now 11-3 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12.
Going in, Miller was very concerned about his team’s rebounding, shot selection and untimely fouling, so much so he spent close to 15 minutes talking about it earlier in the week. Saturday night, things were cleaned up to a degree.
The fouling was still a problem “and it hurts our team and sometimes fouling is just a weakness,” Miller said.
“Our rebounding was good and our shot selection – trying to be a balanced team around the basket – was in place and that helped us,” Miller said.
Arizona big man Christian Koloko had 8 points and 6 rebounds in tonight’s win over ASU and Sean Miller says the freshman is only getting better and the plan is to continue getting him on the floor. pic.twitter.com/X8TBTVbpDy
A key – outside of the importance of shot selection – was the emphasis of getting the ball near the basket early and often. UA did that, going to Nnaji as often as possible. He eventually went 7 for 11. He finished with a team-high 17 points.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller talks about getting Zeke Nnaji more touches tonight against ASU and the play UA’s other freshmen starters pic.twitter.com/u5IoirAokJ
“Statistics don’t lie,” Miller said, of Nnaji’s success from the floor. “…Zeke produces. He doesn’t shoot it every time he catches it, but some of the best opportunities we had started with him catching the ball.”
Noticeably absent from the mix was Mannion’s shots, which helped him lead the team in the offensive flow better. He took just nine shots, hitting five. He finished with 10 points but added seven assists.
“I thought he played the right way and did a really good job as well,” Miller said.
Miller echoed those same feelings for Green, who had 12 points on the same 5-for-9 shooting.
“Those guys were very receptive to the things we’ve asked them to do,” Miller said.
And with all three directives that Miller had been preaching since the loss to St. Johns before Christmas.
“Yeah, definitely,” guard Josh Green said when asked about Miller’s request of getting the ball to Nnaji. “When you have someone like Zeke as the four man, not many people are his size, height or strength, so it’s a big factor for us guards in getting him inside. It creates for our whole offense – obviously he’s gonna bully his player down and if they double, it brings it out for the perimeter players.”
It also helped that senior Stone Gettings returned to the rotation after a five-week absence from a facial fracture. Gettings played 17 minutes, finishing with five points. He adds depth and size … and stability.
“It was awesome,” Miller said of Gettings’ return. “Stone means a lot to our team because he’s a different style of player. He’s a big guy that skilled. … I thought during the game it meant a lot having him back because he does a lot of good things for our team.”
Another change could be change of pace, going less up-tempo than in the previous games. Miller has been somewhat averse to going fast all the time, saying it has created a chaotic offensive approach where poor shot selection has been the byproduct.
Saturday night, UA went fast when it could and looked good doing it.
“We want to play at a fast tempo … it makes sense with Nico and the team that we have,” Miller said. “But one of the things that we’ve gone through is you can play at a fast pace, and sometimes shoot yourself in the foot — taking challenged 3s and ignoring somebody that’s very efficient around the post (in) Zeke.
“I think that it’s up to us to make good decisions. You have to take the good, early opportunity but when we didn’t take that tonight, we ran better offense, and we were more balanced. And we have a team of guys on offense that can do a lot of things.”