Arizona defeated North Dakota 100-82 on Thursday night to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and Sean Miller started his postgame press conference by immediately praising his opponent.
“They have a really good team,” Miller said. “When we were preparing for them I think certainly I knew and really tried to let these guys know from an offensive perspective they're very difficult to defend.
“They push the ball at a fast pace. They have two really outstanding guards and they have tremendous movement and everybody on their team knows their role.
“At times we had some good defensive possessions. We had a stretch there in the first half where we were playing maybe our best and we had times where we didn't. When we weren't at our best defensively they certainly took advantage of it.”
Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Alkins combined for 40 points with Alkins playing one of his best games as a Wildcat.
“First round of a NCAA tournament, you would expect freshmen to have a struggle,” Miller said. “Lauri and Rawle were our two best players tonight and in Rawle's case, it might have been his best game he's played at Arizona.
“Twenty points, five assists, no turnovers, 8 for 8 from the field. It's a big reason why we scored a hundred points tonight and maybe offset a little bit of our defense.”
As well as Markkanen played, Miller regrets not getting him more touches in the second half.
“I wish we would have done a better job getting the ball to Lauri in the second half,” he said. “Teams go to great lengths to try to take him out of things and sometimes it opens up other opportunities for his teammates.
“Although maybe in the second half he didn't score as much, maybe we didn't even get him the ball in scoring position as much. That's because they really loaded, switched, fronted, did a lot of things to take him out of it.
“Sure enough Dusan had 12 second half points. We have balance on offense and we did a lot of goings things as a team tonight. Lauri obviously was a big part of that.”
Arizona’s offensive game plan was clearly to go inside and it worked, as the Wildcats scored a season-high 100 points.
“Offensively we did the job,” Miller said. “Seven turnovers, and by the way, they're a team that can force turnovers, they have a lot of quickness, use their hands really well on defense, and they disrupt you.
“Twenty-four for 28 from the free throw line. We're an excellent free throw shooting team and we got there. Fifty-eight percent -- we had 36 field goals, 32 were from two point.
“We utilized our size. That's important in a game like tonight to play to your strengths. I think if you listen to us, I think the sentiment up here is we wish we felt better about our defensive effort and I think we'd have put together one heck of a game.”
When North Dakota cut Arizona’s lead to seven, Kadeem Allen came back with a three-point play that sparked a 12-0 run and helped put the Fighting Hawks away.
“Kadeem is our heart and soul,” Miller said. “He's the only senior on our team. He's been with us from start to finish this year as a leader.
“The first game of the season in Hawaii against Michigan State he drove the ball coast to coast and hit a game-winning shot and really from that point on, unless he was injured, he's played a big, big role in every game he's played.
“He didn't personally have as good a defensive effort tonight as he usually does, but those guards were hard to defend and he picked up a couple of fouls. I really believe he was more hesitant after he picked up his fouls.
“Kadeem seems like always in the play, whether it's a big rebound, a defensive stop, a good pass, he does everything. He plays to win. He couldn’t care less about his stats, and I think sometimes that's his best quality.”
Attention now turns to Saturday’s second round matchup with St. Mary’s.
“In some ways North Dakota and St. Mary’s have some real similarities in that they utilize ball screens a lot in the half court,” Miller said. “They have some incredible shooters out there while all of this action is going.
“North Dakota plays at a much faster tempo, which I thought was a big part of their success against us. We talked about that at halftime. They really pushed the ball and once they get in the half court they have a lot of movement that follows it. Saint Mary's is more deliberate, but they really execute and certainly shoot the basketball.
“If a team makes 10 for 22 from the three-point line, you're playing with fire, and that's what they did tonight. One of the alarming things, and it's something we have to get right here entering Saturday, two shooters that clearly we knew were great shooters, No. 21 and No. 1, Hooker and Baldwin, they went 9 for 17.
“The fact they shot 17 3's and made 9, and they were the players that we clearly knew, is concerning. I'm just going to bet that if you look at how they scored their 3's, they got quite a few on a fast push in transition.
“Some of that starts with our running good offense, but it really starts with making sure that we're back. Transition can break your back and at times I thought they created some great shots for themselves against our transition defense.”