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.

No. 1 South Carolina tops fifth-ranked UConn 81-77

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HARTFORD, Conn. – In a rematch of last season’s national championship game, South Carolina came out on top again over UConn thanks to a strong fourth quarter by Aliyah Boston.

Geno Auriemma stepping onto the court to spike a water botte, that helped them, too.

Boston scored 23 of her 26 points in the second half, including 14 in the final period, to help the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the fifth-ranked Huskies 81-77 on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd.

“Aliyah is just relentless, she plays relentlessly although she had a subpar (first half) as far as statistics, she impacted the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered. she knew she didn’t play up to her standards. What does she do? Raise her standard. Bad first half or not she’s going to continue to play.”

While there wasn’t as much on the line as the title game last April, there was a high intensity to it, including Auriemma getting the technical late in the fourth quarter after getting frustrated by the officiating enough to throw the bottle.

“I thought there were a lot of things being overlooked. It was difficult for some of our guys to move out on the floor,” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach. “I didn’t think it was one key play, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It was bad. … Dumb mistake by me. Bad decision.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) have won 29 consecutive games since losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game last year. They’ve won four of the past five meetings with the Huskies, including a victory in the NCAA championship game last season. That ended UConn’s perfect 11-0 record in title games.

“This was a national championship-like game. I wanted us to feel what it takes to do this,” Staley said.

Now South Carolina finally has a win in Connecticut after winning there before.

South Carolina used its size again to top the Huskies. The 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year helped the Gamecocks have a 42-30 advantage on the boards, including grabbing 25 offensive rebounds.

Boston finished with 11 rebounds for the 76th double-double of her career. Cardoso added 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

With her team leading by four in the fourth quarter, Boston took over. She scored the next 12 points for South Carolina, two of those came when Auriemma tossed the water onto the court and was charged with the technical foul.

Boston hit the two free throws. She then hit a jumper, a 3-pointer and another basket to give the Gamecocks a double-digit advantage.

“I’m kind of in attack mode. In the second half I made more shots then I did in the first half,” Boston said.

Despite seeing their starting backcourt foul out, the short-handed Huskies (21-3) wouldn’t go away. They whittled the lead down to 80-77 with 10.8 seconds left on Aubrey Griffin’s three-point play.

Raven Johnson hit the first of two free throws a second later and UConn couldn’t convert to close out the game

“They have a lot to feel good about once they get past what it feels like to lose,” Auriemma said. “I feel better at 3 o’clock today then I did at 12 o’clock. I didn’t know how we’d respond. I knew we’d play hard and compete like hell. I didn’t know who was going to make a big play, who was going to get a big rebound, make a big shot. I know now more than I did at noon and I feel better about my team.”

Aaliyah Edwards led UConn with 25 points.

UConn got off to a solid start, outscoring South Carolina 25-14 in the opening period. Lou Lopez Senechal capped the strong start, hitting a running 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

South Carolina asserted its size in the second quarter with Cardoso scoring 11 points in the period. Her putback with just under 10 seconds left tied the game at 34 heading into the half.

TIP-INS:

UConn is 8-10 against No. 1 teams all time. … The Huskies are still missing guards Azzi Fudd (knee), Caroline Ducharme (concussion) as well as Paige Bueckers (knee) and Ice Brady (knee), who are both out for the season. … Many former UConn players were in the crowd including Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, and Napheesa Collier sitting a few rows behind the Huskies bench. … South Carolina has gone 41-6 against ranked teams since the start of the 2019-20 season.

DEPTH:

The Gamecocks reserves outscored UConn’s 37-0. The Huskies only had eight healthy players.

UP NEXT:

South Carolina: visits Auburn on Thursday before a showdown with No. 3 LSU on Feb. 12

UConn: visits Marquette on Wednesday.

No. 16 Duke tops No. 9 Notre Dame 57-52 for 1st place in ACC

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Celeste Taylor scored 14 points and No. 16 Duke came from behind for a 57-52 victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday to move into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Trailing for most of the game’s first 28 minutes, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) took the lead for good in the final minutes of the third quarter to knock off the Fighting Irish (18-4, 9-3) before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion.

A jumper by Jordyn Oliver put Duke ahead 45-44 with 1:20 left in the third quarter and the visitors never trailed after that.

“I’m proud of my players for finishing the game,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Duke led 48-46 going into the fourth quarter after trailing Notre Dame by as many as five points in the third quarter. A steal by Elizabeth Balogun in the final 15 seconds helped seal the win.

A 13-4 run helped Notre Dame take its biggest lead of the first half for either team at 31-23. The Irish led 31-25 at halftime.

“We fell short, but you know it’s a part of our growth,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “It’s part of our journey.”

Taylor scored 10 points for Duke in the second half. Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson finished with 9 points apiece and Taya Corosdale and Oliver had 8 each.

Maddy Westbeld, playing all 40 minutes, led Notre Dame with 15 points, Sonia Citron scored 14 and Olivia Miles added 11.

“She’s one of the best players in the country,” Lawson said of Miles, who logged just over 31 minutes. “We didn’t have to go against her for a quarter of the game.”

COLD SHOOTING

Neither team shot well in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame made just 2 of 13 shots from the floor and Duke was 3 of 13.

“We just talked about staying disciplined defensively and making it hard,” Lawson said. “I though we challenged shots.”

Ivey also addressed that stretch of the game.

“Some of those opportunities were in transition and we didn’t get a chance to capitalize,” she said. “We did a good job of finding the open person, we just didn’t nail the shots.”

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Led by Corosdale and Oliver, Duke enjoyed a 21-4 edge in reserve scoring.

“I’m really proud of my players off the bench,” Lawson said. “Jordyn Oliver was really good.

“We needed to have that depth in scoring. Not only did they score but they were efficient from the field.”

The Blue Devils’ bench shot 9 of 15.

SHORT-HANDED IRISH

Notre Dame graduate student Dara Mabrey was lost for the season in the Jan. 22 game against Virginia.

Lauren Ebo, a 6-foot-4 graduate student, has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury.

“Ebo does a great job of being a precence on the block with her size and ability to rebound and play post defense,” Ivey said. “She’s been working really hard (at rehabilitation).

“It’s kind of day to day.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish fell out of a first-place tie with Duke in the ACC standings.

Duke: The Blue Devils are now alone atop the conference standings.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Irish meet Pitt in two of the next four contests – on Thursday in South Bend and on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Duke: The only regular-season meeting between the Blue Devils and Boston College is Thursday at Boston.

Colorado State sorry for ‘Russia’ chant at Ukrainian player

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Colorado State has apologized for a group of fans who chanted “Russia” at a player on an opposing team who is from Ukraine during Saturday’s game.

Utah State’s Max Shulga is from Kyiv and was shooting free throws when TV cameras picked up the chant from the student section during the game in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“On behalf of Colorado State, we apologize to the student-athlete and Utah State. This is a violation of our steadfast belief in the Mountain West Sportsmanship Policy and University Principles of Community,” Colorado State said in a statement.

“Every participant, student, and fan should feel welcomed in our venues, and for something like this to have occurred is unacceptable at Colorado State.”

Utah State beat CSU 88-79.

Duke edges North Carolina 63-57 behind Roach, Lively

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DURHAM, N.C. — Jeremy Roach scored 20 points, Dereck Lively II had career highs of eight blocks and 14 rebounds and Duke defeated North Carolina 63-57.

Kyle Filipowski added 14 points and Tyrese Proctor 11 for the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 ACC), who won their third straight and beat the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-5) for the first time in three meetings, including in last year’s Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 63rd career double-double, extending his own program record, Leaky Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Love added 12 points and RJ Davis 11.

Roach scored eight of Duke’s final 10 points, including the last four after Lively’s tiebreaking dunk with 1:35 to go. North Carolina missed its last five shots, including a trio of 3-point tries in the final minute.

The Blue Devils’ six-point winning margin matched their largest lead.

Neither team reached 40% shooting but Duke outscored North Carolina 20-2 off fast breaks and was 11 of 15 at the free-throw line to only 2 of 3 for the Tar Heels.

The stat sheet was fairly even at halftime when Duke led 33-32 except for one telling stat, a 16-0 advantage for the Blue Devils on fast-break points as they scored repeatedly off transition.

A 14-5 run erased a seven-point North Carolina lead — the Tar Heels’ largest — and put Duke in front 26-24 with just under four minutes left in the half. A Proctor 3-pointer broke the fourth tie before Bacot cut it to the one-point margin at the break. Bacot had 12 points in the first half. Roach had 10.

The game matched two men who played in this rivalry and are now leading the programs they played for: first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, in his second year for North Carolina.

The teams will meet again in their regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on March 4. Duke plays at No. 23 Miami on Monday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

No. 13 Iowa State rolls past eighth-ranked Kansas 68-53

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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes scored all 15 of his points in the second half as No. 13 Iowa State rolled past No. 8 Kansas 68-53 on Saturday.

Osun Osunniyi added 13 for the Cyclones (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), who stayed within at least a game of front-running Texas in the conference standings. Tamin Lipsey added eight rebounds and 10 assists.

“Today, we came out and played desperate,” Holmes said.

Jalen Wilson led the Jayhawks (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points for his sixth straight game with at least 20. No other Kansas player had more than 8 points.

“It’s not a formula for success for us,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We need balance from our starting five. If one guy feels like he’s got to go do it all on his own, it crashes the offense.”

The Cyclones led for all but 1:14 of the game, building a 34-16 scoring edge in the paint. Kansas struggled early, making just two of their first 10 shots and committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Iowa State shot 46% for the game.

“From the beginning, we gave them some easy buckets,” Wilson said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with (defensively) … the easiest way to get comfortable is easy buckets, layups, stuff like that.”

Iowa State was up 33-21 at the break.

Holmes missed all four shots in the first half, but after getting sick at halftime, he helped the Cyclones stretched the lead to 42-31 early in the second half with a 3-pointer and layup.

“I felt a little nauseous the whole day,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some sickness over the past week and a half.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks dropped to 3-4 during a stretch in which six of its seven opponents were ranked. The lone unranked foe was Kentucky. … Kansas committed a season-high 20 turnovers Saturday. … The loss to Iowa State was Self’s first in five meetings with second-year Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Iowa State: Improved to 12-0 at home this season and 5-0 in the Big 12. It was also the Cyclones’ fifth win over a top-10 opponent in the past two seasons.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts No. 10 Texas on Monday.

Iowa State: Travels to West Virginia on Wednesday.