For more than half of Sean Miller’s time at Arizona, he had a ready-for-what’s- in-front-of-him team. Great talent, good chemistry and the pieces fit.
Welcome to 2020 and, well, that’s not the case. There’s plenty of freshmen, newcomers and a situation where you never know when his team will play.
He’ll have no choice but to be patient. He admitted it Tuesday night after a hard-fought 70-64 win over Montana in McKale Center.
“We’re going to have some tough moments,” Miller said after his team moved to 6-1. “There’s no getting around it. I think our best basketball is in front of us.”
And, it’s not like he hasn’t used the “we’re a work in progress” line for even the talented teams, but this year’s version of UA is exactly that – a mixing-and-matching experiment that will eventually find its way.
To where is anyone’s guess. But Tuesday night’s win is better than the alternative.
It took about 35 minutes to get the win – or at least take charge of the Grizzlies, the same team that knocked off Washington last week.
UA eventually wore Montana down, limiting it to one basket in the final minutes to secure the win.
“We have a number of players on our team where their best days are ahead of them, but not this year,” he admitted. “They will improve as the year goes along but you see it, the mistakes that are made.”
He called them “head scratchers.”
“We just have such inexperience,” Miller said. “You feel it. My hope is you have less of those as we move on.”
He got so frustrated – twice – he threw something into the fan-free stands at one point in frustration and then slammed the game ball hard onto the court after a UA player was called for a foul on a 3-point attempt.
Then there are the smaller things.
Like the missed opportunities from the free throw line.
Like the simple turnovers.
Like the simple decisions that were the wrong ones.
“(It’s about) being a little bit smarter,” Miller said. “We’re coaching and trying to teach them and they’re doing a great job of receiving that.”
There were some positives in the victory. You saw a return of Jordan Brown, who had 15 points and six rebounds and arguably his best game since the season opener when he impressed with a double-double.
“He just has to get smarter in certain areas of the game,” Miller said. “If he does, I think his game will take off.”
That could likely mirror Arizona’s game, too. But, again, patience will have to be used, much like Tuesday’s game where Montana led for most of the game before Arizona turned it on late – defensively and offensively – to slowly put some distance between it and the Grizzlies.
It helped that James Akinjo, hit all his free throws, going 6 for 6. It came a game after he hit just 2 of 9 against Stanford.
“I was excited to see James bounce back,” Miller said.
Akinjo played it off like it was just another game, not worrying about what happened over the weekend. He played like it, leading UA with 18 points.
“I just wanted to stick with it, stay aggressive and get the best shot possible every time down,” Akinjo said. “In basketball, you’re going to have tough nights. You can’t let that change your approach. I just wanted to come in and do the same thing I always do.”
Still for the game, Arizona is struggling from the line. It went 19 for 34, which allowed Montana to stay close.
“It’s hard,” Miller said. “We’re working on it. Overall, we’re a better free throw shooting team than we’ve shown. Moving forward, we’re not going to have the luxury of shooting 55 percent and winning. That’s one of several things that hurt us at Stanford.”
Azuolas Tubelis struggled from the line going 1 for 6 but didn’t in other spots. He picked up his first collegiate start as Miller went to him because he adds “more of a scoring punch,” Miller said.
He blocked three shots, had two steals, nine rebounds and defended the basketball well in splitting time with Christian Koloko.
“I’m a good defensive player,” Tubelis said. “I think I’m trying to show it now. I was not prepared for this basketball. I didn’t know how they played in the post. Now, I know.”
Again, patience. But in time, he’ll be even more improved down the road.
“You’re starting to see him come into his own on the defensive end,” Miller said. “If he would have made his free throws, he would have had a great game. But you see he’s a very talented player.”