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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.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.