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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona can’t afford to duplicate Utah effort

Sean Miller walked into McKale Center’s press conference room with the same look of intensity he wears for 40 minutes on the sidelines every Thursday and Saturday.

The relief of sneaking past a lowly Utah squad with a nine-point victory wasn’t evident. The head coach’s frustration and disappointment stemming from the Arizona men’s basketball team’s lifeless first half, however, was crystal clear.

As are most things with Miller, his message to the media was well calculated. He started with the good news.

“The positive is, you always need players to step up and make big shots and big plays,” Miller said. “We had a number of guys in the second half do it.”

The combination of Brendon Lavender’s four timely 3-pointers, Kyle Fogg’s 17 points and six steals and Nick Johnson’s clutch 18-point performance saved Arizona from what would have been its worst loss in recent memory.

But Miller’s good news lasted less than two minutes. After his status quo tribute to Lavender, Fogg and Johnson, Miller got down to business. The frustration that built up inside of him for that one minute and 37 seconds was finally unleashed.

“The other side of it is I’m just really disappointed in myself and our team,” Miller said of Arizona’s first 24:04 that led to a 43-31 deficit against the conference’s worst team.

Miller didn’t stop at disappointed. The words he used to describe Arizona in those first 24 minutes were as follows: pathetic, frightened, lethargic, alarming, helpless, and disappointing beyond words.

Miller’s exactly right. Arizona’s effort level was flat-out embarrassing. Top to bottom, Utah is the worst team in the Pac-12.

Yet, even against such a talentless team in a must-win game, the Wildcats took 24 minutes off. With little effort and zero confidence, their strengths disappeared.

Arizona entered the game with the best 3-point defense in the NCAA allowing only 26.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Utah came into Saturday as the conference’s second-to-worst 3-point shooting team, converting at a 29.4 percent clip.

But as Arizona struggled to contain dribble penetration, Utah created a host of open looks and drilled 4-of-5 triples by halftime. The Utes finished the game 9-of-18 from distance — the Wildcats’ worst 3-point defensive performance of the season.

The Pac-12’s second-to-worst field goal shooting team also had its way with Arizona, shooting 50 percent from the field and 54.5 percent in the first half.

If Arizona hadn’t woken up and kept the Utes from scoring for the final 5:42, Saturday would have been Utah’s best offensive output of the season — against a team built around defense and intensity, nonetheless.

When the NCAA tournament selection committee looks back at Saturday’s game against Utah, it will see a nine-point home victory that capped back-to-back series sweeps.

But in reality, Saturday was a major wake-up call for Arizona. The Wildcats aren’t talented enough to take halves off, even against Utah.

They aren’t experienced enough to dig a deficit and come racing back to steal a victory against better teams. With a seven-man rotation, they aren’t deep enough to make up for what Miller called “three or four of those guys not playing as hard as they’re capable of.”

Arizona is in as good of a position as anyone to win the Pac-12 and go dancing in March. But if problems of effort and confidence return, Arizona’s in trouble.

“If you’re Arizona and you don’t play with effort level, it’s bad,” Miller said.

The Wildcats and ZonaZoo got a taste of 24 minutes of “bad” on Saturday. Will Arizona learn from Saturday and make its Utah performance nothing more than a blip on the radar?

Miller better hope so, or his Wildcats are in trouble.

— Mike Schmitz is a marketing senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatHoops.

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