By Roman Veytsman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Tale of two halves: 'D' key to UA NIT success
It may only be the preseason NIT in this instance, but the UA men's basketball team showed during the its season-opening victory over San Diego last night that the team is capable of playing the kind of defense head coach Lute Olson stressed during preseason practice - for one half at least.
Last season, Arizona held opponents to 78.5 points per game, good for eighth in the Pacific 10 Conference.
But the Wildcats held San Diego to just 69 points in the first round of the preseason National Invitational Tournament. Arizona held opponents to under 70 points only five times all of last season.
"Overall, I thought we defended well," Olson said.
Arizona began the game with defensive pressure, holding the Toreros to two points in the first five minutes.
"We were very excited, it was our first game at home," said sophomore guard Mustafa Shakur, who had three steals and held San Diego's point guards to only eight points.
It didn't get any better for San Diego, as they scored a meager 23 points in the first half, being held for 6:15 without a point as Arizona went on a 16-0 run midway through the first half. The Wildcats eclipsed their 6.87 steal-per-game average from last year, picking up 10 on the way last night.
San Diego's main perimeter threat, Brett Melton was held to zero points in the first half on 0 for 4 shooting from the floor, including 0 for 3 from 3-point range.
"We knew that he was a shooter and we wanted him to put the ball on the ground, said senior guard Salim Stoudamire, who guarded Melton for most of the game. "I think he got one at the end, and I was pretty mad at myself for letting him shoot that."
The second half was a different story, however, with San Diego doubling their first half total and outscoring Arizona, 46-39.
"In the beginning of the second half we did a good job, but then the last eight minutes we did a terrible job," Shakur said.
Brice Vounang, the Toreros 6-foot-8 center, led all players with 28 points and 11 rebounds in the game, hitting bank shots from several angles.
"I like to use the glass a lot, it's one of my strengths," he said.
Olson was impressed, saying he could have been one of the best post players the Wildcats will have to face this year.
"I'm not sure we're going to play anyone tougher than he is," Olson said.
The Wildcats fronted Vounang and made UA's perimeter players help on the weak side.
"He's a good player, but we made some bad decisions guarding him," said sophomore forward Ivan Radenovic. "We tried to front him and bring the help side. At one point in the game we did a good job. Sometimes we were late and he scored easy buckets."
Olson praised Radenovic's defense and blamed the lack of help on the perimeter guys.
"Ivan did a good job in all aspects," Olson said. "He defended well, he had good pressure on passes. It was good to see him step up like that."
While Arizona struggled shooting the ball in the second half, the Toreros were red-hot, hitting 50 percent of their shots.
"They knocked down some good shots from the perimeter which kind of spread us out," Olson said. "The big guy took advantage once we were spread out. They knocked down some good shots from the perimeter which kind of spread us out. The problem was the offside help and that's the perimeter guys."
The NIT uses experimental rules such as a wider lane, an extended 3-point line and a charge block line down low in the key. Olson believed that the new rules were to the benefit of Vounang. When the Wildcats fronted, Vounang was able to use space in the wider lane to get easy buckets.
"We wanted to force him to have step out and we did that," Olson said. "The bad news is that he knocked down every shot that he got."
For the Wildcats to win the NIT, they'll have to bottle up their first-half defense and use it for the rest of the tournament.
"In the first half we were denying passes and we were in help side position, and the second half we weren't denying passes and we weren't in help side position," Stoudamire said. "We got lackadaisical and allowed them to run their offense."