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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Wildcats defensive issues must come to a halt against the Gaels

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Simon Asher

North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker (34) looks to dribble around Arizona’s Kadeem Allen (5) during the Arizona-North Dakota game on Thursday, March 16.

SALT LAKE CITY — During the Sean Miller era at Arizona, his team’s have had a clear identity: playing lockdown defense. Whether it was Kevin Parrom’s tenacity, TJ McConnell’s peskiness, or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s rangy athleticism, the Wildcats lock people down.

This year was no different. Arizona ranked 32 in the country in adjusted defense according to kenpom.com and they had a clear defensive catalyst in senior guard Kadeem Allen.

So, what’s been going on lately?

In the Wildcats’ four postseason games, they have allowed at least 40 points in the second half. After torching Arizona for 85 points in a blowout victory during the regular season, the Oregon Ducks poured in 51 of their 80 points in the second half of the Pac-12 Championship game.

Even the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, from the lowly Big Sky Conference, posted 82 points against Arizona on Thursday night, the third most points given up by the Wildcats’ all season.

But Arizona players remain confident in their abilities and know that at this time of year, everybody is playing their best basketball.

“Good teams. Good teams score the ball,” Allen said when asked about the reason for Arizona’s latest defensive woes. “We’ve been playing good teams for the last couple of games and they scored the ball well.”

The Wildcats have not faced the Saint Mary’s Gaels the 2005-2006 season, but the two teams’ head coaches have developed a relationship that has led to both squads scrimmaging each other over the past few seasons.

Gaels’ head coach Randy Bennett said he and Arizona head coach Sean Miller met in Vegas during a recruiting trip and it led to scrimmages in each of the previous three seasons.

So, are the teams familiar with each other? Not quite.

“I don’t think the scrimmages are a factor,” Bennett said.

Even with a short window of time for preparation against an unfamiliar foe, in March it’s just about rolling the ball out and playing, he said.

“They’ve [Saint Mary’s players] seen so many scouts, there’s nothing new here. It’s new guys, but the concepts of what you’re defending and how they’re going to defend you, we’ve seen it all by this time,” Bennett said.

For the freshman on the Wildcats’ roster, they never competed in a scrimmage against the Gaels. For Lauri Markkanen, hearing about the scrimmages from the likes of junior Dusan Ristic, junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allen, certainly was nothing game changing for the Fin.

“All the [older players] are basically saying is that they are a very good team and I knew that all the time. I knew there wasn’t going to be any easy games in the tournament,” Markkanen said.

The Gaels play at almost the country’s slowest pace, according to kenpom.com, ranking 350 out of 351 teams. North Dakota likes to run up and down the court and the Wildcats will have to adjust to a polar opposite tempo seemingly overnight.

“They play a slow tempo,” Miller said. “And we know that we’re going to have to play defense for 30 seconds of the clock every possession.”

A big reason they can play their deliberate style of basketball is because of center Jock Landale.

Landale averaged 16.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game during the season. Shutting him down was on the Wildcats’ minds Friday.

“He’s a great player, he’s probably one of the best centers in the country right now. We have to stop his pick-and-roll game, that’s where he scores most of his points,” Ristic said. “We have to make everything hard for him, that’s a big key for tomorrow.”

Ristic will likely carry the burden of defending Landale down low and after a shaky performance on Thursday against North Dakota, Ristic-Landale could be the key matchup in Saturday night’s tilt.

“Dusan didn’t play, in my opinion, up to his ability level the first half of last night’s game. We felt that as a team,” Miller said.

Ristic has only matched up with Landale in those pre-season scrimmages, but even in those less intense matchups, Ristic knows he is facing a different player on Saturday.

“From three years ago to right now, it’s a big difference. He’s a much more improved player physically and basketball wise,” Ristic said. “He’s made huge progress since his freshman year.”

The Wildcats’ defense primary focus will be on stopping Landale down low, but the Gaels’ can shoot it too. Even with their slow-developing half court sets, they shot 39.8 percent from 3-point range and are led by Calvin Hermanson who shot the 3-ball at a 44.1 percent clip.

Arizona’s perimeter defenders will have the athletic advantage over the Gaels’ and, in theory, should have no trouble forcing tough shots from beyond the 3-point line.

To win tomorrow, the Wildcats’ front court rotation of Ristic, Markkanen and Chance Comanche will have to have their way with Landale.

In a game many many projection systems predict will be close, that matchup will be the difference if the Wildcats’ want to make the Sweet Sixteen tomorrow night.

“You could throw the seeds out at this point. You could make the case that Saint Mary’s is more efficient than we are, if you look at their numbers this season,” Miller said. “They’ve been remarkably consistent on both offense and defense. And they’re going to be a tough team for any team in this tournament to beat, including us.”


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