Arizona’s teamwork, toughness shaped by ‘Bad Boy’ role models

PORTLAND 

Arizona had been close to the top but has never quite broken through to the hallowed ground in the first five years under coach Sean Miller.

Looking for that little extra boost — a jolt of inspiration and motivation for this season — Miller stumbled onto something while watching a two-hour documentary from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series: "Bad Boys."

It became required viewing for his Wildcats.

There were lessons to be learned and messages to take away from the Detroit Pistons teams of the late 1980s and 1990s: Teamwork, toughness, family, roles and winning.

"With team success it’s amazing how individual accolades follow, how players in a team sacrifice, and how it comes back around and they benefit," Miller said Friday as his Wildcats prepared for a Round of 32 game against Ohio State.

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"There are a lot of lessons. Defense is something you can control better than offense. For our team to be totally committed to being a great defensive team, (it) will take us the furthest we can go."

His players say they’ve taken the lessons to heart en route to a 32-3 record heading into Saturday’s game.

What was senior point guard T.J. McConnell’s prime takeaway?

"How close they were as a team," McConnell said. "He wanted our team to be like that. We’ve watched it so many times that we’re pretty much like that. We kind of figured it out as they kept talking about how close they were and what they would do for each other. We said to ourselves we have to be like that."

Success didn’t come easily or overnight for the Bad Boy Pistons. They had to get past the reigning powers of the time, the Celtics in the East and the Lakers in West. After several years of knocking on the door, the Chuck Daly-coached Pistons won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990.

It’s a journey that Arizona can relate to — the Wildcats have twice been one basket away from the Final Four during Miller’s tenure but have yet to take that big step.

"How Coach (Miller) viewed it was we have been knocking on the door of a Pac-12 championship and the Final Four," said Ryan Reynolds, Arizona’s director of basketball operations. "Our program, like the Pistons, has to break down some doors."

Miller first showed the tape last summer — initially to his returning players, then to his entire team. They’ve watched it at least four times, enough to have broken down some parts into segments to illustrate points.

Chief among them are the staples of a championship team: Defense and rebounding.

"(That) was the backbone of their team," said Arizona assistant coach Joe Pasternack. "Everybody had a certain role on the team, and everybody had to accept that role."

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Isiah Thomas was the leader. That’s McConnell.

Bill Laimbeer was the enforcer. Kaleb Tarczewski, though lacking Laimbeer’s mean streak, plays that role for the Wildcats.

Mark Aguirre, the scorer, comes in the form of freshman Stanley Johnson.

And Rondae Hollis-Jefferson plays defense like Dennis Rodman and has the personality of John Salley.

"In that aspect, as far as being the hustle guy, diving on the floor for a loose ball, having energy, I would say, ‘yeah,’ " Hollis-Jefferson said, agreeing with the Rodman comparison.

What was Hollis-Jefferson’s takeaway?

"Know your role," he said. "If you think about it, in a way, we’re like them because we have so many situations, so many places where we didn’t break through. They (Pistons) were getting closer and closer every time. Eventually they broke through.

"It’s time to break through."

Tarczewski added three points: Playing with heart, being physical and being unafraid.

"It was about being all in and playing hard basketball," he said. "That was the most important thing. They were a team, and everyone was playing their hardest, doing everything they could to win. That’s what we’re trying to do.

"They were a family. Everyone was trying to win. That’s what he was trying to tell us. It was good for us. It provided our team a lot of motivation."

For Johnson, the prevailing message was one of toughness, to be the "baddest boys" on the court.

"We’re not going to get punked, not going to back down from anybody," Johnson said. "It’s not about how big or tough you are. We’re going to show you — and not by fist fighting — but how we crash the glass and how we play offense and defense.

"If we lose, we’re going to lose the right way, doing our thing. That’s the mentality how this team works. That’s what (Miller) was getting at."


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