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What’s Wrong With Arizona?: Why the preseason No. 2 team in the country is already in a tailspin

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Arizona is on the verge of making history in the worst kind of way.

The Wildcats entered Thanksgiving week sitting at 3-0 on the season and No. 2 in the AP poll and proceeded to put together the worst week that any team ranked No. 2 in the AP poll has ever produced. The Wildcats went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis. They lost to an N.C. State team that was picked to finish 12th in the ACC and that lost to Northern Iowa in their next game. They lost to an SMU team that was picked to finish fourth in the AAC and that lost to Northern Iowa in the tournament opener. And, finally, they lost to No. 18 Purdue, which doesn’t seem so bad until you realize that: A) Purdue was in the seventh-place game because they lost to Tennessee and Western Kentucky, and B) that Purdue team beat Arizona by 25 points.

The only way this trip could have been a bigger disaster was if the FBI had walked on the court and arrested Sean Miller, but at least then Miller wouldn’t have had to watch his team get embarrassed. That might not have been a negative.

So we know the what.

But what about the why?

How did a team that common sense told us was one of the nation’s very best and that still features the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and a candidate to win the 2018 National Player of the Year award manage to drive off a cliff?

I broke down the tape and spoke to people that scouted Arizona to try and figure it all out.

ARIZONA IS NOT A GOOD DEFENSIVE TEAM

This isn’t exactly breaking news. Giving up 90 points (on 73 possessions) to N.C. State and 89 points (on 69 possessions) to Purdue is a pretty clear indication that there are a number issues that need to be worked out.

The biggest problem that Arizona is facing is with their biggest players. Simply put: Right now, Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic should not be on the floor together. Ayton is a five, and at the college level, he is more or less everything you want out of a five defensively. The height, the length, the athleticism. You want him to be the guy that protects the rim and hedges on ball-screens.

In theory, he also should be able to cover fours, but at this point in his development, he just is not there yet. Ayton is a 19-year old 7-footer. How many times in his life has he had to defend someone on the perimeter? How many times has he had to close-out on a shooter or chase someone like Purdue’s Vince Edwards or SMU’s Ethan Chargois off the three-point line? Two decades ago, Ayton would have been fine covering fours, but the concept of small-ball was quite literally built around the idea of making bigger defenders uncomfortable by pulling them away from the basket.

Watch these clips. In the first, you’ll see Ayton get sucked into the paint, over-helping and leaving Edwards wide open for a three:

Arizona’s pick-and-roll coverage in general has been awful, and there is plenty of blame to spread around. Parker Jackson-Cartwright quite simply is not big enough to be the point of Arizona’s defense. Sean Miller’s best teams came when he had great on-ball defenders in his back court, particularly at the point guard spot. T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kadeem Allen. These guys are NBA-level perimeter defenders, and Jackson-Cartwright just is not.

And he doesn’t get much help, either. Ristic is about as mobile as birch tree, and neither of Arizona’s bigs coming off the bench seem all that adept at defending in space. Even Ayton has his issues in this area. Watch how easy it is to get open threes and layups:

It’s more than just an issue with ball-screens.

Arizona cannot seem to stop anyone from getting into the paint. Allonzo Trier is not a defender, and he’s not on the floor to be. Emmanuel Akot has the potential to be sensational on that end of the floor, but he’s a freshman that was pulled out of high school a year early. Brandon Randolph is another freshman that just isn’t ready. Neither is Alex Barcello. Part of the reason that you saw Dylan Smith start twice in the Bahamas is that he actually defends.

For a team that plays the Pack-Line defense, Arizona has no line and they have no pack. Penetration is too easy. Help is too often non-existent, and when it is, lacking rotations lead to far too many wide open threes:

Watch the last clip in that video again.

That is just atrocious.

Four Arizona players make defensive mistakes on one possession:

  1. Keanu Pinder gets beaten on a straight-line drive all the way to the rim.
  2. Instead of cutting off Edwards’ drive and forcing a kick0ut, Trier, who was out of position as it is, takes a lazy swipe at the ball.
  3. Ayton — who, to his credit, is trying like hell to do the right thing by fronting the post and not letting a 7-foot-3 Isaac Haas duck-in — is pinned on the wrong side of Haas, completely eliminating him as a rim protector.
  4. Jackson-Cartwright doesn’t get to the charge spot and instead stays connected to Nojel Eastern, who is 1-for-4 from three in seven games this season.
  5. I’m being kind to Dylan Smith, because he’s hugging Carsen Edwards in the weak-side corner. If Ayton is able get around Haas and challenge that shot, Edwards has a dump-off to Haas for a dunk because Smith didn’t rotate down.

The proper way of playing Pack-Line defense is the exact opposite of everything that happens on this possession with the exception of what Pinder did. He’s a power forward trying to guard an all-league wing. The expectation is that he gets beat off the bounce, and at the very least, Pinder does his job and forces Edwards middle. But Trier isn’t there to cut off the drive, Ayton isn’t there to block the shot an Jackson-Cartwright isn’t there to take the charge.

So Pinder is the one left looking bad when the guys on his team are the ones that didn’t do their job, either.

And, if you go watch the tape, you’ll see that’s hardly an isolated incident.

AP Photo

THERE ARE SOME ISSUES ON THE OFFENSIVE SIDE OF THE BALL AS WELL

The biggest problem that Arizona has is at the point guard spot. Jackson-Cartwright just isn’t the kind of offensive weapon that opposing defenses are going to worry about. When you have to deal with Ayton in the paint and you have to try and keep Trier from going for 30 points, you are perfectly OK with Jackson-Cartwright being the one that tries to beat you. The same can be said for Barcello and Smith.

Jackson-Cartwright is a good shooter, but he doesn’t shoot a lot of them. He’s a capable creator off the dribble. He would be fine as a back-up point guard, but when coupled with the issues that he has on the defensive end of the floor, he’s a liability for this team in a position where they lack depth to begin with.

Then there is the issue of who is Arizona’s best weapon offensively. Ayton is quite clearly the most talented player on the roster, but Trier has emerged as the go-to guy. That could, in theory, create some issues, but as long as Ayton gets his touches and the offense runs through him, this probably isn’t all that big of a deal; I’m not sure how many better scorers there are in the country than Trier, and in a late-clock situation, he’s the guy that should have the ball in his hands.

Frankly, I think anyone blaming the offense for what happened in the Bahamas can’t see the forest for the trees.

Trying to navigate egos and shots around Trier and Ayton is a good problem to have. Any questions about offensive balance will be answered assuming that Rawle Alkins is cleared to play when he’s healthy. Determining roles and minutes and rotations are things that most teams have to work through during non-conference play. They clearly must shoot the ball better than they did in this event. They have room to improve.

But at the end of the day, Arizona is still putting up points.

They just can’t stop anyone.

Sean Miller (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

ABOUT THAT FBI INVESTIGATION …

I don’t think that’s playing too much of a role in how the Arizona players are performing once they actually get out onto the court.

But I think it would be naïve to say that it isn’t affecting the team in some way.

It starts with the coaching staff. Book Richardson is no longer there, which means that the guy that recruited so many of these kids to Tucson, the man that presumably had the best relationship with them on the staff, is gone. The dynamic within a team is that head coaches are the ones to break a player down and assistant coaches build them back up. Miller has never exactly been known as Mr. Congeniality and that was before the stress of the last two months started weighing on him, and now the guy that helped smooth things over is gone? Not ideal.

In Book’s place, Austin Carroll has been asked to step into an on-court role for the first time in his career from a staffer position. Then Mark Phelps was suspended for five days earlier this year.

Sean Miller might not be in trouble yet, but I’m sure he’s had plenty on his mind over the course of the last two months. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Miller is probably a sociopath if he’s not distracted by the fact that his right-hand man, his assistant for the last 11 years, was facing years in jail over federal criminal charges. If Book decided to talk, he would have all the goods on anything Miller has done outside NCAA rules.

Imagine trying to do your job with that in the back of your mind.

Those are the men that are tasked with getting this Arizona team prepared to play. Scouting reports, game-plans and, frankly, simply teaching the principles of their offense and defense to a bunch of freshmen. It would make sense if the players aren’t getting coached up the way that they have in the past, especially when you consider that the big offseason change Miller made on his staff was to bring in Lorenzo Romar, whose Washington teams were known for their inability to even pretend to play defense.

To me, that’s where you see the effects of the FBI investigation. Arizona has not been coached the way that they need to be coached.

SO IS IT FIXABLE?

I think it is, but only to a point.

I don’t think that Trier is ever going to be a plus-defender. I don’t think that Jackson-Cartwright or Ristic will ever be plus-defenders. If and when Alkins makes his return, I don’t think that he’s ever going to be a plus-defender.

Miller can put together the best defensive scheme in the history of basketball and it’s only going to be so good when the players executing that defense just aren’t all that good.

But that doesn’t mean that this team can’t win games. They can. I don’t think a Pac-12 title is out of the question given just how questionable that conference has looked through three weeks. And I don’t think that a trip to the Final Four is a lost cause, either. How many times will Arizona take the floor this season in a game where they don’t have the two best players?

Play Ayton at the five. Get Akot to a point where he is actually able to contribute positive minutes. Utilize Pinder and Ira Lee at the four. Get these guys to learn how the Pack-Line defense actually works.

The truth is that Arizona is probably not the second-best team in the country. But you don’t have to be the second-best team in the country to win the things they want to win. They just have to be the best team in the Pac-12 and get hot for three weeks in March.

They can still do that.

Sean Miller will have his work cut out for him now, but there is still a lot of season left to play.

Chris Duhon named Illinois State assistant coach

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NORMAL, Ill. (AP) — Former Chicago Bulls point guard Chris Duhon has joined the staff of Illinois State University as an assistant coach.

Illinois State coach Dan Muller announced Duhon’s appointment Monday, saying he brings “a high level of on-the-court experience and success” to the university’s basketball program.

Duhon resigned as an assistant coach at Marshall in January 2017 after his arrest for driving on a revoked license. His driver’s license was revoked for driving under the influence in 2015.

Duhon starred in college at Duke and helped lead the Blue Devils to the 2001 national championship, leading the team in steals and minutes played. He was selected by the Bulls on the second round of the 2004 NBA draft and played four seasons in Chicago.

He retired from the NBA in 2013 after also playing for the Knicks, Magic and Lakers.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

VIDEOS: New footlocker commercials make fun of Trae Young, LiAngelo Ball

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A new series of commercials being released today by Foot Locker feature the stars of the NBA draft getting roasted.

Well, “stars”.

Because the commercial that is going to get the most play is of LiAngelo Ball, who never actually played in college. Ball, if you remember, was arrested for shoplifting while his UCLA team was on a trip to China. He was eventually dismissed from the program and ended up playing for a year in Lithuania before entering the NBA draft.

And, well, they touch on all of that in this commercial:

The other player to get roasted was Trae Young, who was a sensation for the first half of the college basketball season before a dreadful finish saw him losing 12 of his last 16 games. It was ugly, and Foot Locker made sure to remind him of it:

I appreciate the effort here from Foot Locker, but I have to say that these just are not all that funny.

Michael Porter Jr. says info on hip injury ‘got exaggerated a lot’

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Michael Porter Jr. told the Will Cain Show on Monday that he’s “feeling great” and that the information that made the rounds last week was “exaggerated a lot”.

Porter, who missed almost his entire freshman season after undergoing surgery on his back, cancelled a workout that was supposed to take place on Friday due to issues in his hip. It was reported to be spasms, bad enough that he wasn’t able to get out of bed, according to a report from ESPN. It’s worth noting that the original injury he was said to be dealing with at Missouri was a hip injury, not a back injury.

Porter eventually attended Friday’s team workout, although he didn’t workout, he only allowed teams to have their doctors evaluate his back.

“I got evaluated,” Porter said. “I let the doctors come in and do all their tests on me. I’m feeling good. I think the teams are comfortable, but I might get a couple workouts in.”

“It was just a little sore, so I told [my agent] my hip was kind of sore and he just wanted to shut it down for a couple of days,” Porter said. “And then people took that and kind of ran with it, saying, you know, my hip was injured, I couldn’t get out of bed. None of that was really true. I was just sore and I wanted to take a couple of days off. So that’s all that was.”

Porter added that his back is “normal. I have no issues with it. There’s no risk of reinjury [and] every MRI that I’ve done is perfect.”

2018 NBA Draft: 12 players outside the lottery that will out-perform their draft position

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In three of the last five seasons, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award was given to a player that was picked outside of the top five.

Damian Lillard was the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Michael Carter-Williams went 11th in 2013.

Malcolm Brogdon? He was a second round pick in 2016.

This season, Donovan Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 NBA Draft, would be a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year if Ben Simmons had not been hurt last season.

Kyle Kuzma, the 27th pick in the draft, will be a First-Team All-Rookie selection.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at 12 players projected to be picked outside of the lottery in the 2018 NBA Draft are going to out-perform their draft position.

ROBERT WILLIAMS, Texas A&M

I know I said outside of the lottery and I know that Williams is projected by many to be scooped up in the back-end of the lottery, but he deserves a mention here because anyone getting him outside of the top ten will be getting a steal.

The reason for that is simple: Williams has the perfect set of skills to play the five in the NBA. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and the kind of athleticism that will leave him in danger of concussing himself on the backboard, Williams has every tool needed to be a rim-running, lob-catching, rim-protecting center in today’s NBA.

NBA scouts saw this in Williams prior to last season. That’s why he was projected as a lottery pick early on in his freshman season, but the combination of returning to school, playing on a team where the pieces did not fit together and dealing with some suspensions and injuries throughout the year limited his production. The biggest hindrance? For a player that needs space to operate, Williams played on a team that had no floor-spacing whose go-to option offensively was Tyler Davis, a 6-foot-10 land-warrior that did all of his damage within eight-feet of the rim.

Put another way, playing in the NBA, where spacing is plentiful and point guards excel at throwing lobs up at the rim, will be better for Williams’ production than playing in college.

One other note on Williams: One of the biggest knocks on him is his work ethic. Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy told me before the season started that the one thing that Williams had been working the hardest on was learning how to work hard. That’s a major reason why there are concerns about whether or not Williams will hit his upside or develop a three-point shot.

He can add nothing to his repertoire between now and when he hits free agency and Williams will, in my mind, be somewhere between Clint Capela and Tristan Thompson by then. If he drops all the way to the Wizards at No. 15, John Wall’s celebration will make Alex Ovechkin’s look humble.

DE’ANTHONY MELTON, USC

Everyone loves hot takes, so here’s a scorcher for you: If De’Anthony Melton had been allowed to play this season, if he had not gotten caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, we would he talking about his as a potential lottery pick. Melton is a swiss-army knife. He’s 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, an athletic defender that averaged 2.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman. His size and length should allow him to defend multiple positions, and his ability to create — 5.1 assists per 40 minutes as a freshman — makes him an intriguing and versatile talent. He was the only player in the NCAA to average 10 points, five boards, five assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes in 2016-17, something that has only been done seven times in NCAA history.

His big question mark is his ability to shoot the ball. That was the major reason he opted to return to school for his sophomore season; he made just 21 threes in 36 games at USC. Melton spent some time working out with Drew Hanlen, who helped reconfigure the shooting stroke of Jayson Tatum and Mo Bamba and is now working with Markelle Fultz to get his shot fixed, and had a full year to do nothing but get his shot right. It looked improved at the combine, and sources at USC say that he looked much-improved before he opted to leave school.

Melton is likely always going to be somewhat limited offensively, but I see him as a perfect fit as a role player alongside a ball-dominant lead guard.

(Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA

I love Holiday as a mid-to-late first round pick in this draft, and I think he has the potential to thrive as the first guard off the bench for a playoff team even as a rookie. The season he had as a junior — 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.7 boards, 1.3 steals — has been underrated because of the disappointment that UCLA was. He’s a point guard by trade, and capable of playing against second-units in the NBA, but as a career 42 percent three-point shooter that spent last season playing alongside Lonzo Ball, he’s also quite capable of playing off-the-ball as a floor-spacer.

He’s just a shade under 6-foot-1, but he’s a good athlete with a 6-foot-7.5 wingspan and is a better defender than he’ll get credit for because of Steve Alford’s inability to coach a team to get stops. Throw in his NBA pedigree — he is the younger brother of NBA player Jrue and Justin — and I think you’re looking at a guy that will spend a decade in the league.

CHANDLER HUTCHISON, Boise State

I love Hutchison’s potential as a scorer at the next level. He has positional size — 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan — and he spent the last year working on improving his shooting stroke and his toughness. His fluidity and shot-making should translate well to the NBA, and I think that he has the physical tools to hold his own on the defensive end of the floor. A late-bloomer with size, athleticism and the ability to shoot the ball should be something that playoff teams are looking for. I’m not sure that he is a starter at the NBA level, but I think he can help a playoff as a role player off the bench next season.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

KEVIN HUERTER, Maryland; MELVIN FRAZIER, Tulane; JOSH OKOGIE, Georgia Tech;  and KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton

All four of these guys fit the mold for what NBA teams are looking for out of a player at the end of the first round or the beginning of the second round. Players with positional versatility, size, length and shooting ability.

To me, Huerter is the best of the group. At 6-foot-7, he has the height to make up for what he lacks in length. He’s probably the best shooter of the group, and he has a much better feel for how to play than the others; he averaged 3.4 assists as a sophomore. Toughness and his impact defensively are the question marks, but what he’ll bring offensively will help to offset some of that.

Huerter, like Okogie, is also very young, younger than Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr., and that adds to their intrigue. Okogie is just 6-foot-4, but his 7-foot wingspan, athleticism and ability to knock down perimeter shots makes him an ideal 3-and-D prospect, and his age is the reason why he’s likely to get picked ahead of Thomas, whose profile — 6-foot-3, 6-foot-10 wingspan, knockdown shooter — isn’t all that different.

Frazier is the x-factor. He’s the biggest (6-foot-7, 7-foot-2 wingspan) and the most athletic, but he’s also the rawest. The tools are there, and the 38 percent he shot from three this past season is promising, but sources around the Tulane program have said that number may be a bit fluky, like the 38 percent Josh Jackson shot from three as a freshman at Kansas. He’s a risk, but in the late-20s or 30s, he is certainly worth the risk.

RAWLE ALKINS, Arizona

Alkins hasn’t gotten much as any of the four players I just listed, but he’s a guy I think could sneak up on some people. He’s strong and athletic with that New York City toughness in his blood. He’s not a great three-point shooter, but he’s good. He’s not an elite defender, but he’s good. I do think he ends up in an NBA rotation by the end of next season, which is a pretty good return for a guy projected as a early-to-mid second round pick.

DEVON HALL, Virginia

Hall is a strong, 6-foot-4 guard with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and the kind of defensive toughness you know you are getting from a product of Tony Bennett’s system at Virginia. He shot 43 percent from three as a senior while averaging 3.1 assists. He can defend multiple positions, he can play off the ball and he is a playmaker when the ball is in his hands. As a mid-to-late second round pick, Hall seems to me to be a great fit as a back-end-of-the-rotation guard that will come on the cheap. I think he makes an NBA roster within two years.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova

Brunson is so smart and so efficient and such a good shooter that I cannot imagine him not finding success in the NBA. Before Quinn Cook had the season that he had, I would have pegged Golden State as the perfect landing spot for Brunson. Now, I think he’ll probably slide to the second round, and if the Suns don’t land Aaron Holiday with the 16th pick, I think that might be a perfect landing spot for Brunson at 31. Either way, I think that his floor is Fred VanVleet, who averaged 8.6 points and 3.2 assists while shooting 41 percent from three as Toronto’s back-up point guard.

WHOEVER THE WARRIORS PICK

Golden State needs to find a player that can simply fill a role on the best team in NBA history, and they’ve proven in recent years that they excel at finding those kind of talents. Damian Jones was a miss, but Kevon Looney, Pat McCaw and Jordan Bell all played key roles for the Warriors during title runs the last two seasons. None of them are ever going to be great NBA players, but they don’t have to be: They are on a roster with two MVPs, three of the best shooters in NBA history and four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA today. All they have to do is the job they’re asked to do, and to do so on the cheap.

Whoever the Warriors get with the 28th pick should be able to do the same, whether that’s someone on this list — Thomas, Okogie and Brunson all make sense to me — or a player like Grayson Allen, a shooter that played both guard positions in college and is older and more physically ready for the league.

Penn State’s Mike Watkins arrested for third time in two years

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Penn State forward Mike Watkins has found himself in trouble with the law for the third time in his career as a Nittany Lion.

On Monday, Watkins, a 6-foot-9 forward that just completed his redshirt sophomore season by averaging 12.9 points and 8.8 boards, was arrested for possession of drug paraphenalia. According to a report from the Centre Daily Times, Watkins was found to have a weed grinder as well as three .40 caliber bullets in a team issued gym bag. Police were investigating Watkins for possessing an unregistered gun.

“We are aware of the incident and take this situation seriously,” Penn State Associate Athletic Director Jeff Nelson said. “We hold our student-athletes to high standards and will address this violation of team rules.”

In September of 2016, Watkins was arrested for criminal mischief and eventually ordered to pay nearly $3,000 in fines and fees, according to Centre County court records. Last July, Watkins was arrested for disorderly conduct after allegedly getting into a fight, and that led to Watkins being left home from Penn State’s tour of the Bahamas and suspended for the first game of the 2017-18 season for what was termed a disciplinary issue.