No. 8 Arizona has room to improve as Pac-12 opener looms

Sean Miller's No. 8 Wildcats are coming off a loss to UNLV as in-state rival Arizona State and the rest of the Pac-12 loom.

Victor Calzada/AP

TUCSON, Ariz. — A few minutes into Sean Miller’s weekly news conference he said it with ease: "The numbers don’t lie."

And, unequivocally, the Arizona basketball coach is a numbers guy. He loves them, except when they are cause for concern.

And the biggest concerns as Arizona heads into the New Year in what will also be a new Pac-12 Conference season is offensive rebounds and free-throw shooting. They add up to better offense, something Miller talked about earlier this week on the conference media call.

Arizona starts its race to a possible title on Sunday in facing rival Arizona State in their Pac-12 opener on FOX Sports 1.

"I hope that after 18 (conference) games that the two things you guys (media) can bring up to me is that we did in fact do a better job on the offensive glass and that we made more free throws at a higher percentage," Miller said. "If we do those two things, we can be a very good team."

Not that a 12-1 record at this point makes the Wildcats a bad team. But it’s shown blemishes — even if ever so slight — and moments of vulnerability.

The free throws were a problem last year as well and this season left points on the table for being "easy shots" as Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski said. Even he, after improving dramatically last season, has fallen off his pace of 70 percent.

"It’s more mental than anything," said Tarczewski, who is shooting at a 68 percent clip this season. "We all know we are pretty good free-throw shooters. I don’t think there is anyone under 80 percent in practice."

But that’s in practice. The Wildcats shoot 64.9 percent in games, which ranks ninth in the conference.

"We’re not in a good rhythm," Miller said of the team’s free-throw problems. "We have so many individuals who feel they haven’t shot it well. When they take the foul line they take it almost like they need to correct something that hasn’t worked."

He called it "that game within the game." Miller said he has a number of guys who need to just "take a breath" and shoot them well. Only one player (Gabe York at 77 percent) in the top nine of the rotation is shooting better than 70 percent.

The numbers don’t lie.

The Wildcats have scored exactly the same number of points as they did last year at this point, 992 points for a an average of 76.3, second in the Pac-12. Miller said his team is losing two to three points per game because of poor free-throw shooting.

Tarczewski said "it’s been a good week" of practice after the team’s eye-opening loss to UNLV before the break.

New-look ASU ready for No. 8 Arizona

"The focus is on becoming a better team," the center said. "That doesn’t guarantee us anything, but I know our focus has been that."

Included in that is offensive rebounding, where Arizona ranks 11th in the conference, at just 9.77 a game.

"That’s astonishing," Miller said. "We’ve talked about it but I don’t think we’ve done a good job as a coaching staff to holding our players accountable and (getting) the most out of it what we can.

"Getting second-chance points is so important … I hope in the next 18 games we can point to improvement in that area."

So, the numbers will be better, eventually helping the bottom line.

Follow Steve Rivera on Twitter