PALO ALTO, Calif. - When Arizona officials handed Sean Miller a seven-year agreement to take over the Wildcat men's basketball program last spring, they gave him freedom as much as money.
The Cats are seeing the results of that freedom during this weekend's trip to the Bay Area that concludes with a game at Stanford today.
Much more so than either of UA's interim coaches of the previous two years, Miller knows he does not have to win today as much as build a long-term foundation - and now that the Wildcats' postseason chances have shrunk dramatically during a 1-5 skid, the time to tinker has arrived.
"Under the circumstances we're in right now I think we're really preparing for the future, and putting together everything as best we can for the Pac-10 tournament," Miller said. "Obviously, we're preparing to try to win every game but we have to make sure the guys on the court right now are about Arizona and giving great effort, and are a big part of our future right now. It's tough to reinvent yourself this late in the year but it's something I think is necessary for us down the stretch."
One tweak Miller says he won't make is his man-to-man defense, which is allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent from the field in the past six games.
But that decision is also because of long-term vision Miller has. To him, playing zone would only be a temporary band-aid that would not help players develop a long-term identity with the man-to-man - plus, it might not even work well.
"I want to make sure our program does things this year that will be required of us in the future when we're able to have older players, more depth, more size and experience," Miller said Friday. "Part of getting there is to go through these times."
Here are five of the changes Miller is looking at:
1. A true post combination
Miller already gave a hint at what he is talking about when he gave reserve center Kyryl Natyazhko 14 minutes on Thursday against California, playing him often with Derrick Williams.
Miller had talked about playing the freshmen big men together often in the preseason but shied away from it because of Natyazhko's rawness and Williams' unfamiliarity (and defensive issues) at power forward.
"I think playing Derrick and Kyryl together is smart for us for a lot of reasons and most importantly gives us the best chance to win right now," Miller said. "And it's a part of where we're going to go down the road. We want Derrick to play both (post) positions. It's not only good for him but it's good for our team."
2. Benching Horne
When Miller says Williams and Natyazhko give UA its best chance to win "right now," that's a polite way of saying he might as well play them because Jamelle Horne has put together two straight punchless performances at power forward.
Horne has just eight points and six rebounds in the past two games, going 1 for 4 with only a banked-in three pointer against California on Thursday.
"Performance is the only thing I can judge Jamelle on and he's not performing," Miller said.
Miller said that he would probably still start Horne today but indicated his leash will be short.
"Sometimes it's not change the lineup as much as just starting cutting back minutes and giving someone else more minutes," Miller said. "You saw (Thursday) night Derrick and Kyryl. That's one of the adjustments we're trying to make us a better team."
3. Wisely using Nic's minutes
Point guard Nic Wise has struggled offensively in two of the past three games, going 2 for 8 against Cal with three turnovers to one assist, Miller isn't blaming him so much as his situation.
"It almost seems like we're out of gas," Miller said about Wise and the Wildcats as a whole. "I've really gotta be smart with Nic (Wise) down the stretch because we need him to play so well for our team to win. I almost feel like we're asking for him so much from start to finish, I watch him out there and he doesn't quite have that spark that maybe he once did.
"Believe me, he's terrific. He's trying hard. I love his attitude. But we need him to play good ball and with what we're asking him to do for 25-30 games, it's worn on him a little bit."
For relief, Miller has turned to freshman MoMo Jones more often at point guard. Jones has averaged 2.5 assists in the past six games, and has a 1.3-to-1 assist-turnover ratio in Pac-10 games after posting 20 turnovers to just 14 assists during the 12-game nonconference season.
"MoMo has really improved" at point guard, Miller said. "He's really helped."
4. Brushing the dust off Brendon Lavender
Since October, Miller has noted how the sophomore wing is the team's best shooter in practices. But he hit only 7 of 31 from beyond the arc in nonconference play.
During the second half of conference play, however, Lavender is shooting 9 for 13 from three-point range, hitting some key long-range shots at Washington and at California. He's at 51.9 percent in conference games.
Now, with Kevin Parrom nursing a sore left foot again, Miller has the ideal opportunity to play Lavender more often behind Solomon Hill at small forward. Given 18 minutes Thursday at Cal, Lavender responded with 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting, hitting 4 of 5 threes.
"He's fought his way out of that month-long slump that he went through," Miller said. "It's a real credit to him."
5. Easing off the accelerator
When Miller was scheduled for a 10:45 a.m., Maples Pavilion practice Friday after the 24-point loss at California and the late-night drive to Palo Alto, he took a 4:30 p.m. slot instead.
"I figured we needed the rest," Miller said.
The Wildcats wound up practicing for only about 75 minutes and Wise, for one, says lighter practices could help him become more effective.
"We've talked about it," Wise said, when told that Miller questioned his spark. "But practices are becoming shorter because he wants us to have more energy for the game. There's been a lot of wear and tear."
• What: Arizona at Stanford
• When: 5 p.m.
• TV: FSAZ, Channel 58
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM