BERKELEY, Calif. – Two days after saying during his weekly news conference that he might shake up his starting lineup, probably to remove the slumping Dylan Smith, UA coach Sean Miller might have been still thinking about it.
So Miller turned to Smith himself Thursday, before Arizona beat Cal 68-52 at Haas Pavilion.
“He actually asked me,” Smith said. “I told him ‘Whatever it takes for the team to win I’ll do it.' I've come off the bench before my career. Even at my first school (UNC Asheville), I came off the bench for a long stretch and I was still playing productive minutes.
"It really doesn't matter. It's about who finished the game, not about who started.”
Smith didn’t hit a 3 at all in the first half after starting, in fact missing his only long-range shot to move his futility streak to 18 straight missed 3s. But just 53 seconds after starting the second half, Smith plunked one in from 3. He added a layup two minutes later to put UA ahead by eight and hit three more 3s the rest of the way, all of which came at demoralizing times for the Bears.
Smith’s second 3 came shortly after Cal had cut UA’s lead to 33-32, with Zeke Nnaji also having helped the Wildcats pull quickly away from that near-tie with a seven points during what became a 12-0 run.
Smith's third and fourth 3 came late in the game, after Cal had cut UA’s lead this time to 53-43 with 5:22 left. That wasn't a lot of time left to win for a Bears team that plays a slow pace, but still gave a glimmer of hope ... until Smith put it out.
His fourth 3 gave UA a 59-43 lead and then Max Hazzard followed with a corner 3 to put UA ahead by 19.
Miller said he ultimately decided to keep Smith in the starting lineup because “I don't want Dylan Smith to be the scapegoat because we lost a home game or because he's shooting” poorly.
If he had changed the lineup, Miller said, not starting Smith would confirm the coach was blaming him.
Besides, as Miller said after UA's loss to UCLA last Saturday, he has stuck with Smith because of the length and defensive effort he gives on the other end of the court.
“There's a reason that Dylan starts, and it's through his hard work and he's a two-way player. He gives a lot of hustle and a lot of effort on the defensive end. He did that as well tonight but I thought he played within himself, and his 3-point shooting really broke the game open in the second half.”
You could say the shooting was a monkey off Smith's back, though Smith said he never really looked at it that way.
He said he took the same approach to his shots no matter what was being said in the stands, in the media or in social media.
“I mean, whatever narrative that people want to put out there is what it is,” Smith said. “I know how to play basketball. At the end of the day, it's all about winning, man, as long as we win.”
Having fixed his hair issues long ago with a headband, Zeke Nnaji took care of another one Thursday: After experiencing a physical game inside against UCLA on Saturday, Nnaji wore a mouthguard against the Bears for the first time this season.
“I’m not sure where that came from,” Miller said, chuckling. “After UCLA, maybe he thought he needed to protect himself. I think he did get hit in the mouth.”
Whether the mouthguard had anything to do with it or not, Nnaji had his most efficient shooting game since he was 9 for 12 against Utah on Jan. 16. Nnaji said it helped that teammates found him in good spots.
The Wildcats were game-planning to get the ball to Nnaji, something that’s always the case but even more so Thursday against a team because the Bears lack significant inside size other than 7-foot freshman Lars Thiemann.
“It was just to really take advantage of our best matchup,” Miller said. “And there were times where we got away from it. It's not as if our guys are only allowed to pass the ball to Zeke or we can't have a possession where he doesn't touch it.
"But he’s very efficient, and the other guys, for example, Dylan, are able to create good scoring opportunities off of him because the other team has to help past the double team, or we get their guys in foul trouble, they go to the zone, and it opens up some perimeter shooting. So for us, Zeke has been very consistent and he’s playing really well right now.