Defense carries the day for an Arizona team that’s still a work in progress offensively

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TUCSON, Arizona — Tuesday night No. 1 Kentucky put on one of the more impressive shows you’ll see from a team at this juncture in the season, throttling No. 5 Kansas at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Games like that can raise the bar, not only for the team in question but also for other squads viewed by the masses as national title contenders.

That was the case for No. 2 Arizona, which took on Big West preseason favorite UC Irvine in a game some would expect the Wildcats to have little issue with based on name recognition alone. Things didn’t work out that way for Arizona, despite what some may be led to believe when seeing the 71-54 final score. Russell Turner’s Anteaters led 29-26 at the intermission and didn’t relinquish the lead for good until the 7:53 mark of the second half.

So what did we learn about the Wildcats? Two things: that their offense is still a work in progress, and that defensively Miller’s Wildcats took a small step towards being a unit similar to the one that ranked among the nation’s best in 2013-14.

Looking at this game offensively has to be done with the understanding that in UC Irvine the Wildcats were facing a team that was the best in the country at defending teams inside of the three-point line last season. With 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye anchoring their imposing zone, UC Irvine limited teams to a nation’s-best 39.2% shooting on two-point field goals. And Arizona struggled with the UC Irvine zone in the first half, playing tentatively and shooting 5-for-14 inside of the arc.

In the second half Arizona was more aggressive in looking for the openings in the UC Irvine zone, and it paid off. Arizona shot 50 percent inside of the arc in the final 20 minutes, and all ten of their two-point field goals were scored in the paint. Add in a 22-for-26 half from the foul line, and the numbers back up the idea of Arizona being a more aggressive team.

The biggest reason for that? The play of sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Of course there was his second half dunk that nearly blew the lid off of McKale Center, but the more important development was how often Hollis-Jefferson went to the foul line.

Of his game-high 19 points 11 were scored from the charity stripe, with Hollis-Jefferson shooting 10-for-12 from there in the second half. For some talented players the prospect of being the sixth man can be a difficult one to absorb, as the “thrill” of hearing one’s name called before the game even begins overrides the understanding that it’s what the team needs that truly matters.

However through three games, that hasn’t been the case for Hollis-Jefferson.

“I had a talk with Rondae between our last game and tonight, and I really left it up to him because he’s clearly one of our five best players,” Miller said of Hollis-Jefferson. “He’s earned that through practice, and everything he’s done this year and last year. He told me that he felt that coming off the bench was not only good for him but good for our team.

“Now I say that because there are a lot of these guys who will ‘talk the talk,’ say ‘sacrifice’ and beat their chest when things are going well,” Miller continued. “There aren’t a lot of kids who would come off the bench if [they were in his position]. It wasn’t as if I even had to sell it. That’s who he is, it’s his greatest strength. He’s unselfish to the core, and I also believe it’s one of the reasons why he’s playing so well because he’s not caught up in himself, he’s caught up in the team.”

Arizona ended the game on a 30-8 run, with their defense serving as the catalyst for a team that was scuffling on the other end of the floor. And to be frank there’s a lot for this group to figure out offensively, with point guard T.J. McConnell being the leader. Arizona doesn’t lack for talent offensively, but finding the right mix is something they’ll attempt to do as the season wears on.

Can Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson (ten points, ten rebounds) man the wings at the same time? There were instances in which they were asked to do this against the Anteaters, and the results were mixed. Gabe York and Elliott Pitts may be the best bets to provide consistent perimeter shooting, but that hasn’t been the case thus far.

Essentially, Arizona’s progress will be similar to that of a road under construction. Things won’t come to a halt for the Wildcats as they look to straighten things out offensively, but if they defend and rebound Arizona can continue to rack up wins.