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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.

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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.

Sunday’s Three Things To Know: Michigan rolls, Gafford shines, Virginia Tech beats Purdue

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Some believe that Sunday is fun day.

Others think of Sunday as a day for football and nothing else. 

But Sundays are also for college hoops, as Michigan, Daniel Gafford and Virginia Tech showed us.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. NO. 18 MICHIGAN CONTINUED TO DOMINATE

Fresh off of a 27 point blowout win at Villanova, the Wolverines went to the Mohegan Sun casino and rolled over both George Washington and Providence. The win over the Friars came on Sunday, as Iggy Brazdeikis scored 20 points and Jon Teske added 17. Providence shot just 28 percent from the floor in the loss, as a late first half surge from the Wolverines more or less put this one out of reach before the second half started.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about Michigan at this point in time. The Wolverines are already one of college basketball’s elite defensive teams, and given the new look they can run out this year — playing Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers, both of whom are strong, 6-foot-8 athletic combo-forwards, at the four and the five — makes them all-the-more versatile. There are still kinks to work out on the offensive end, but if there is anyone that I would want to give four months to figure out how to make offense work, it is John Beilein.

2. NO. 16 VIRGINIA TECH LANDED A COME-FROM-BEHIND WIN OVER NO. 23 PURDUE

The best game of the night was Virginia Tech’s win over Purdue in the title game of the Charleston Classic.

Purdue jumped out to a 12-point lead thanks to a hot start from Carsen Edwards and some timely play-making by Evan Boudreaux, but the Hokies came roaring back in the second half. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was terrific while Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill made big play after big play in the second half.

There is a lot to like about Tech this season, and it looks like Buzz Williams has them lined up for their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

3. ARKANSAS CENTER DANIEL GAFFORD WAS DOMINANT

Gafford looked every bit the part of a future lottery pick, as he went for 27 points, 12 boards and three blocks in a win over Indiana in Fayetteville on Sunday evening. This is exactly the kind of performance that Arkansas fans were expecting out of their star center when he announced that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season. It is also the kind of performance that could end up getting Arkansas on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.

There is still so much time left this season, but Indiana has looked good at times this year. This result had quite a bit to do with a young Indiana team missing two starters while playing on the road for the first time this season. That ended up being a great combination for the Hogs, and it earned them a win that is going to look better two or three months from now than it does today.

VIDEO: Purdue’s Carsen Edwards with a Dunk of the Year candidate

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Carsen Edwards entered the season as an all-american and has played like one over the course of the first two weeks of the season.

While No. 23 Purdue did not get a win over No. 16 Virginia Tech on Sunday night, Edwards did find a way to make a highlight that is going to be on every reel this season:

The best part of this dunk?

Purdue was playing 4-on-5 at the time. Evan Boudreaux, their power forward grad transfer from Dartmouth, was at the other end trying to get his shoe put back on.

No. 16 Virginia Tech rallies past No. 23 Purdue

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Justin Robinson saw his Virginia Tech teammate Ahmed Hill coming off the floor after a disappointing first half.

“We’re going to need you to win,” Robinson told him.

Hill certainly listened and was instrumental in the 16th-ranked Hokies’ first in-season tournament title in coach Buzz Williams’ five seasons with an 89-83 victory over No. 23 Purdue at the Charleston Classic on Sunday night.

Hill scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half and had the three-point play that put the Hokies (4-0) ahead for good at 80-77 with 3:50 remaining.

Hill followed with a 3-pointer to extend the margin. The Boilermakers (4-1) could not respond.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker had 25 points to lead Virginia Tech. He was named tournament MVP.

Robinson also had 23 points as the Hokies came from 50-38 down in the second half to win.

The Hokies jumped around in celebration when the horn sounded, giddy about the championship.

“It’s an experience that money can’t buy,” Alexander-Walker said.

Purdue’s dynamic guard Carsen Edwards finished with 26 points, the fifth time this season he’s had 23 or more points in a game.

The 6-foot-1 junior rose high for a left-armed jam and tied things a final time at 77 with his layup after stealing the ball from Robinson.

But he said there were too many late breakdowns that cost the Boilermakers.

“The good thing is that it’s early and we can work on this before we get into (Big Ten) conference play,”

It didn’t look like Purdue would have much to work on early on.

Edwards jumper late in the first half put his team ahead 41-29 while the Hokies struggled to find shots.

But, as Virginia Tech did in earlier Charleston wins over Ball State and Northeastern, the team roared back.

The Hokies held Purdue to 1-of-8 shooting in a six-minute stretch as they went from 12 points behind to 58-56 ahead on Alexander-Walker’s 3-pointer.

Williams said the Hokies began to put pressure on Purdue’s inside players and make sure when Edwards shot, it was not an easy, open attempt.

Edwards was 9 of 21 overall and made only three of his 11 attempts from beyond the three-point line.

The game’s pace the final 12 minutes after Virginia Tech’s rally was frenetic, a high-level display of basketball typically on display in a later postseason tournament in March.

It’s way too early for that kind of talk, Alexander-Walker said.

“We try not to get ahead of ourselves,” he said. But “we’re happy to see our work come to light.”

Williams was happy for his players and staffers Virginia Tech could taste some early success after the word the team had done in the offseason.

“I’m thankful for our kids, I’m thankful for their parents who believed in us and allowed us to have an opportunity like this,” he said.

No. 10 Kentucky survives persistent VMI 92-82

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — These early weeks haven’t been easy for No. 10 Kentucky, but coach John Calipari sees an upside in how his team is working through growing pains to win.

Perimeter defense will no doubt be a focal point for improvement after Bubba Parham nearly shot VMI past the Wildcats.

Quade Green came off the bench to score a season-high 17 points, including five in the final 90 seconds, to help Kentucky hold off the Keydets 92-82 on Sunday night.

Statistically, the Wildcats (3-1) appeared to do a lot right against VMI (3-2). They controlled the boards (43-22), the paint (42-14) and missed just 6 of 35 free throws, numbers that should’ve added up to a solid victory.

Instead, they ended up being just enough to offset VMI and sophomore guard Bubba Parham. He scored a career-high 35 points and made 10 of the team’s 19 3-pointers, the most ever against the Wildcats. Parham also created late-game anxiety for Kentucky.

Leading by 19 midway through the second half, the Wildcats had to work to put away the stubborn Keydets, who made 12 second-half 3-pointers and got within 85-79 with 1:49 remaining.

“They made five, six, seven shots that you’re like, ‘dude, that’s almost at half court,'” Calipari said of VMI and Parham. “But we had hands down, and we’re talking at every huddle, you have to have your hands up on the guy. But hands were down and the kid was feeling it.”

Green answered with a 3-pointer 19 seconds later and Ashton Hagans made a free throw for a 10-point edge.

Tyler Creammer responded with the Keydets’ final 3 to get within 89-82 before Green made two free throws with 33 seconds left. PJ Washington (19 points, career-high 18 rebounds) made a free throw with 17 seconds left to seal Kentucky’s third consecutive win.

“We’ve always got to find a way to win,” Green said. “They came out on fire tonight because we’re Kentucky. However, we came back with some fire as well.”

Reid Travis matched a season high with 22 points for the Wildcats, who won their second game of the Ohio Valley Hardwood Showcase. That total included 10 in the second half while playing with protective glasses after being poked in the eye in the first.

Parham finished 10 of 16 from long range to double his previous high of five 3s last December against Western Carolina. He also surpassed his previous scoring best of 26 points in January at Chattanooga. Garrett Gilkeson and Creammer each added 13 for the Keydets with three 3s.

“It helps that (Parham) kind of went crazy and made a bunch of shots,” VMI coach Dan Earl said. “I thought we really spread the ball and got some open shots in the second half.”

The matchup was the first between the schools since the Keydets upset the Wildcats 111-103 in the 2008-09 season opener.

THE BUBBA SHOW

Parham seemingly couldn’t miss from where he launched deep shots, to the point that even Kentucky players and fans reacted in amazement. Of the 10 he made, one from near the UK insignia at half court and a high, arcing attempt from the right corner seemed to stand out.

“I’ve been shooting like that for a while now,” Parham said. “Some people call it a rainbow shot, but I practice that each and every day, so it’s my form now.”

Parham scored the most points against Kentucky and in Rupp Arena since Texas A&M’s Elston Turner dropped 40 on Jan. 12, 2013.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Kentucky should maintain its spot in the top 10 despite a win that was closer than expected.

BIG PICTURE

VMI: The Keydets entered the contest having made 25 of 51 3-pointers the past two outings and started hot with 6-of-9 shooting from long range. They couldn’t match Kentucky in the paint or on the boards, and sure couldn’t keep the Wildcats off the foul line. And yet, they were within seven in the final minute before missing the final three from behind the arc.

Kentucky: The Wildcats shot 49 percent and converted frequent chances at the line. They also dominated rebounding and paint and bench points, all of which were needed to offset the Keydets’ perimeter game and Parham.

Gafford’s career high lifts Arkansas over Indiana 73-72

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — An overtime loss in the season opener might have proved instrumental for Arkansas in a narrow win against Indiana.

The Razorbacks squandered a late lead in a 73-71 overtime loss to Texas, and the same fate loomed large again Sunday as the Hoosiers erased a double-digit Arkansas lead in the second half.

This time, the Razorbacks (2-1) found a way to hang on as Mason Jones’ free throw with 2.5 seconds left provided Arkansas a 73-72 win in the Hardwood Showcase.

Daniel Gafford scored a career-high 27 points for Arkansas, but it was Mason who delivered the big rebound and free throw that secured the win. It was a little redemption for Mason, who missed the front end of a one-and one with 1:01 left and Arkansas clinging to a 72-69 lead.

“I knew I was going to make that free throw,” Mason said. “I like the pressure.”

In a similar situation against Texas, Mason missed a late shot and Texas rallied to tie and force overtime. Mason said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told him he’d get another chance, and Sunday it presented itself.

“We learned a lot from that Texas game,” Jones said. “I just knew to be ready when the chance came again and I was ready this time.”

Indiana (3-1) had a chance to take the lead with under 15 seconds left, but two shots under the Hoosiers’ basket would not fall and Jones rebounded the second miss and was fouled by De’Ron Davis with 2.5 seconds left. It was a foul Indiana coach Archie Miller did not totally agree with.

“We had a shot to win the game, had a tap to win the game and had an unfortunate call that put them on the line,” Miller said. “It was a 50-50 play. I don’t know if he fouled him or not, but I know it was a tough call.”

Jones hauled in the key rebound, but Gafford did not let Jones take all the credit in the post-game interviews.

“I tipped that rebound out, by the way,” Gafford laughed.

Jones made the first free throw to give Arkansas a 73-72 lead. Indiana called a time out after Jones’ free throw, and Anderson instructed Jones to deliberately miss the second free throw.

“I have been harping on guys to make free throws, so asking him to miss one, I don’t remember asking a player to miss a free throw in a while,” Anderson said. “It was a perfect miss.”

Indiana only had time for a desperation heave as the buzzer sounded.

Arkansas rode the second half play of Gafford, who also grabbed 11 rebounds. At one stretch in the second half, Gafford scored 10 straight Arkansas points to help the Razorbacks hold on against a furious Indiana rally.

“I wasn’t playing weak like I usually do,” Gafford, who passed up entering the NBA Draft to return to Arkansas for his sophomore season, said. “Today I let the game come to me instead of trying to just go and take it. Letting the game come to you, it comes more smooth.”

Anderson said Gafford was a force at both ends, as his blocked shot just seconds after the opening tip set an early tone.

Miller said his team would benefit from playing against Gafford later in the season.

“He’s a very good player,” Miller said. “He was a really tough handle for us today. He pretty much neutralized the game. He was dominant. That is something that is going to help us moving forward and defending the caliber of big like that.”

Arkansas led 38-35 at halftime on Gabe Osabuohien’s 3-pointer from the right perimeter. Then Isaiah Joe, who finished with 13 points, opened the second half with a 3-pointer for a 41-35 lead. The Razorbacks would stretch the lead to 10 points twice — 45-35 with 17:08 left on Gafford’s dunk, and 51-41.

Indiana rallied with an 11-2 run fueled by freshman Romeo Langford, who finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and eventually took a 58-57 lead on Juwan Morgan’s layup with 8:58 left.

Arkansas recaptured a five-point lead at 63-58 on Gafford’s inside shot, before Indiana surged again to twice tie the game late.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: The Hoosiers played just eight players as they have battled some early season injuries. Six of the eight logged more than 20 minutes including Langford, who played 38 minutes.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks had all nine players reach the scoring column Sunday, getting contributions off the bench to help the scoring. Jones also delivered a huge performance with 11 points and seven assists without a turnover.

TURNING POINT

Arkansas appeared to be rolling to a big win when Jones completed a three-point play to give the Razorbacks a 10-point lead at 51-41 with 14:16 left. But the Hoosiers rallied by outscoring Arkansas 17-6 over the next five-plus minutes to take a 58-57 lead.

Juwan Morgan and Langford fueled the run, scoring nine of the Hoosiers’ 17 points with Morgan’s inside bucket giving Indiana the lead.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Langford is projected to be a high lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and he lived up to that lofty status Sunday. Langford a 6-foot-6 guard in just his fourth college basketball game, showed off a variety of skills with slashing drives and long range. His back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half helped Indiana erase a 10-point deficit.

TIP-INS

This was just the third meeting between the two teams, and first since 2008 when Arkansas defeated Indiana in an NCAA Tournament game. . Arkansas is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its 1994 national championship under former coach Nolan Richardson. Anderson was a longtime assistant coach and former player for Richardson.