Buried underneath the disappointment of a double-overtime homecourt loss Wednesday was a statistic Arizona coach Sean Miller could be proud of.
After slapping and bumping their way to 84 fouls over three games in the Maui Invitational last week - thanks to a defensive effort guard Nic Wise called "horrible" - the Wildcats committed only 19 fouls in a 50-minute 74-72 loss to UNLV.
Considering that the poor-shooting Rebels are known for efficiently slashing and passing their way to the basket, constantly putting opponents in position to foul, Miller said he was happy to see it.
"UNLV will really test you in that area," Miller said. "We had better help defense. Our players guarded the ball better and did a great job."
How quickly the Wildcats can transition from relying on a zone defense designed in part to protect Jordan Hill from foul trouble last season to playing a clean man-to-man under Miller may in large part define this season. The Wildcats will learn much more about their progress Sunday in their first true road game of the season, at Oklahoma in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series.
"Fouling negates a lot of good things," Miller said. "Fouling gets us further into our bench and can take (point guard) Nic Wise out of the game and puts the other team on the line, gives them two points. So we're working hard on that, and we hope we can see improvement in that."
While the science behind defending cleanly can get complicated, requiring hours of instruction, video review and practice, here are three of the simpler principles Miller's staff has been drilling in:
1. Help and trust. Not only can the Wildcats' lack of familiarity surface in offensive chemistry but also on the other side of the court, when guys need to bail out teammates who are getting beaten by their assigned opponent.
Even against UNLV, which shot just 39.7 percent from the field, the Wildcats gave up open buckets inside - such as when Tre'Von Willis beat Brendon Lavender inside near the end of the first overtime - and they also failed to get out on Derrick Jasper for a three-pointer that gave the Rebels the lead for good.
"We just have to be in the gaps a little more," forward Derrick Williams said. "Basically just play help defense."
By doing so, teammates must compromise the job they are doing - the job they are primarily credited for - on their own men.
Buy-in is required.
"It is helping and trusting that they're going to be there," Wise said. Teammates "have to trust that you'll get his guy when he helps you."
2. Think carefully. Too many times in Maui, Miller said he would watch one of his players get in good position and then, at the last second, inexplicably reach around unnecessarily for the ball and get whistled for a foul.
"We'd be competing at a high level and an individual player would get undisciplined, reach and gamble, didn't show the official his hands," Miller said.
The Wildcats also were baited into some fouling situations in Maui, thanks to their lack of experience at recognizing the offensive schemes.
"A lot of times Vanderbilt and Wisconsin had a lot of aka smoke on the opposite side of the ball," forward Jamelle Horne said. "They'd set a fake backscreen that would kind of catch your attention. And off the side of the ball, they'd do a screen and roll, and nobody would be able to rotate. It'd be a late rotation. That's a problem."
3. Don't get beat. Of course, all these defensive and fouling issues will disappear if the Wildcats can stop their man from the beginning.
That's easier said than done, especially against an effective driving team such as UNLV, but it's something Miller wants done more often. Horne said Miller has put a "huge" emphasis on one-on-one defense, and Miller said guarding the ball at all five positions is the single biggest factor in his defense.
"Imagine the game being one-on-one - is he constantly shooting jump shots, or is he going around you?" Miller said. "If he's going around you, you're not going to win that one-on-one game. Playing five-on-five is the same, you can have great help, but you don't want to have help on every possession.
"We have to improve because if the guy defending the ball gets beat, it really promotes fouls. It puts you so much more at risk when that ball is constantly driving into the lane. We have to work on that part of our defense every day."