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Arizona flexes offensive firepower, faster pace through first two games

Sean Miller’s teams have always leaned on their defensive sturdiness.

The Arizona head coach is one of the most renowned teachers of the pack-line defense, and the Wildcats’ success each season has been defined by how effective the roster is at learning the scheme and executing it. To put that defense in place, it’s been no secret the Wildcats would rather play at a tempo that is selective, if not downright apprehensive, about attacking early in the shot-clock.

So it would be concerning that little-known University of Maryland, Baltimore County on Sunday hit 14 of 28 threes while pushing Arizona before losing contact with the Wildcats late in a 103-78 Arizona win in Tucson.

Overshadowing that was this: Miller’s team that welcomed back three players who weren’t available in a season-opening, 101-67 win over NAU on Friday hit 39 shots and again shot 60 percent or better from the field.

“I don’t know if I’ve coached a team that’s had more (field goal makes),” Miller told the Tucson media afterward. “We shot 61 percent. We have shot 60 percent a lot. I believe we have a lot of talent on offense.”

No kidding.

Arizona scored 100 or more points in the first two games of the year for the first time since the 2002 team did so. That squad included six players that appeared in the NBA: Luke Walton, Channing Frye, Andre Iguodala, Hassan Adams, Salim Stoudamire and Will Bynum.

That team, by the way, finished the year leading the NCAA in points per game.

Here in 2017-18, it’s not just the Allonzo Trier-led offense that saw its best perimeter scorer knock down five treys and score 30 for the second time in two games. It wasn’t just that the Wildcats played off him and freshman center Deandre Ayton, who scored 19 to go with 13 boards and a few rim-ratting dunks.

It was the pace Arizona played at that was not so Miller-esque.

“We played fast and we shared the ball,” the coach said, adding UA had 25 assists on the 39 makes. “There aren’t going to be too many college games you see that have 39 made field goals and that’s what we did.”

According to ESPN’s Enhanced Box Score app, Arizona respectively played at a pace of 72.2 and 73.6 in its first two games. Last year, the Wildcats only surpassed the 70 mark in eight games total, ending the year ranking 281st in pace, according to College-Sports Reference.

There are a few factors that could be linked to the pace.

The obvious: The presence of lead assistant Lorenzo Romar, whose teams at Washington were known for their up-tempo style.

There’s also the opponent. UMBC and leading scorer Jairus Lyles, who dropped 31 points on Arizona, also likes to play small and fast. It led to Arizona ditching a dual-center lineup in favor of a more athletic, quicker group with bench forwards Ira Lee and Keanu Pinder playing power forward next to Ayton.

At times, the Wildcats even put point guards Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Alex Barcello on the court at the same time.

November is a learning month for both the players and the coaches, Miller said on his postgame radio interview.

The team going small and fast had a lot to do with the defensive matchups as well.

“We need more of those types of guys right now,” he said of defensive specialists. “We need more balance. We need perimeter players that can maybe sign up to guard the team’s best offensive player. We need big guys to come in and do a really good job like Keanu and Ira did tonight of maybe giving us a quicker look.”

With Pinder and guard Dylan Smith back after serving a suspension in the opener, plus Brandon Randolph appearing briefly after clearing concussion protocols, the Wildcats went 10 players deep.

That depth will grow whenever sophomore swingman Rawle Alkins returns.

It means more options on defense.

“As we learn our roles and I think as we do a better job maybe figuring out who can do what, I think our defense will settle in,” Miller said afterward.

“It’s good to have flexibility and versatility in what you do. For us, we have to utilize our depth to our advantage.”

But considering what Arizona’s done so far on the other end, the Wildcats might be going to battle with a roster — and a philosophy – that could challenge to be one of the better offenses in college basketball.

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