TUCSON, Ariz. — When does a 17-point win not feel like a comfortable one to be proud of? When Sean Miller says so.
When the Arizona coach says his defense “looks terrible” and has put his team in a “quandary” as it prepares for a run at a Pac-12 title, you know he’s serious.
Such was the case for No. 12 Arizona on Saturday despite beating visiting Washington State 73-56 at McKale Center, as Miller said the final score was not indicative of the game.
Miller pointed out that had the Cougars hit six to eight free throws they missed, the game could have been much different. Washington State was able to hang around because of what Miller called a lack of effort by the Wildcats that “just isn’t going to work.”
Miller added, “Guys have got to try. It’s disappointing.”
He later changed his tune a bit: “It’s not disappointing, but a sign of where we are.”
Therein lies the quandary. The Wildcats are now just a week away from March, when teams are measured and names are made. Yet they seem to be regressing, at least on on defense.
So uninspired was Arizona’s defense in the second half that Miller spent about nine minutes of his 12-minute postgame news conference talking about it.
“We are nowhere near where we need to be on defense for us to go the furthest that we can possibly go with three games left (in the regular season),” Miller said. “We have to be a better defensive team. We gave very poor effort in the second half.”
Washington State played evenly with UA in the second half, with the Cougars scoring 37 points to the Wildcats’ 38. UA had a 35-19 lead at the half, but Washington State cut the deficit to 11 on two occasions.
Miller pointed out a trend, citing four recent games in which Arizona’s second-half play has been a disappointment.
Colorado. Utah. California. Stanford. Only two of those games (Utah, Stanford) resulted in wins, and that took some late-game heroics.
“We’re having a hard time playing for 40 minutes,” Miller said.
Why? Miller has no idea.
“We’re capable, but the question is, can we do it?” Miller asked.
The ‘Cats certainly shouldn’t be lacking for motivation. Arizona still has a shot of winning the Pac-12 regular-season title — it went into Saturday’s game tied atop the conference with Oregon at 10-4 — and maybe more in the NCAA tournament.
After all, UA is 23-4 overall, and Miller made it clear that he’s happy with his team’s record. But he added that the real season starts now, as USC and UCLA loom leading up to the season finale against rival Arizona State.
Someone needs to sound the alarm, and Miller said he’s been trying to do so in practice, games, whatever the case may be.
“If you’re trying to win the Pac-12 championship and trying to win the Pac-12 tournament and trying to secure the highest possible seed we can for the tournament, and then entering that tournament knowing that any team is capable of beating anyone else, then we’re the team that won’t win because we are the team that picks and chooses how hard we play on defense” he said.
It’s all about effort, Miller said, and his team doesn’t have it right now.
It’s a “lack of intensity and attention to detail,” Miller said.
Those things showed up Wednesday night in UA’s big win over Washington. They didn’t Saturday.
Thankfully, UA senior Kevin Parrom did, playing one of his better games in the last two years. He had a season-high 19 points and a game-high seven rebounds while going 5 of 6 from 3-point range.
“His 19 points and 3-point shots came at a time when I don’t know if anyone else wanted to take the shot,” Miller said, adding that the team as a whole needs to get to “another level” but “(is) not there.”
For Parrom, the breakout game came at a good time since he’d been mired in a bit of a slump.
“Coach told me to be patient,” Parrom said. “I stuck with it. We don’t have a problem offensively, because we have a lot of guys who can score. But defensively, we have to get better.”