ANAHEIM, Calif. — On a night when Sean Miller was furious enough with his team that his postgame tirade boomed through a closed locker room door, the Arizona coach still seemed pleased with at least one member of the Wildcats.
Improbably enough, that was freshman Josiah Turner.
Turner, the highly touted point guard whose immaturity and poor practice habits have drawn Miller's ire at times this season, returned to Arizona's starting lineup Thursday for the first time since mid-November. He played well enough that he'll likely stay there for the time being, scoring nine points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out three assists in a 65-58 loss to UCLA.
"Josiah is really starting to come on right now," Miller said. "No question, he's practicing better. His mind's in the right place. His heart's in the right place. He's trying to win, trying to do the best he can both on and off the court. He deserves a lot of credit for that. He's a really good kid and to me he's learned some good lessons, some valuable lessons. Hopefully the best is yet to come for him."
Hailed as one of the nation's top incoming point guards when Arizona signed him last year, Turner endured a rocky start to his collegiate career. He was late to a shootaround before Arizona's win over Duquesne on Nov. 9, he sat out Arizona's Nov. 13 victory over Ball State because Miller said he was still making adjustments to college basketball and he did not travel to Florida on Dec. 7 reportedly because he missed practice earlier in the week.
What convinced Miller that Turner deserved another chance to replace sophomore Jordin Mayes in the starting lineup was not so much his play in games as his attitude and work ethic in practice. The Arizona coach said Turner had been especially impressive since Arizona returned from a brief Christmas break on Dec. 26 and began preparing for last week's matchup with Arizona State and this week's trip to face UCLA and USC.
"He's earned it with practice and in arguably the hardest week of practice we've had -- leading into the Arizona State game, he had the most points through those six or seven days," Miller said. "He's playing better in games and to me he's really doing a better job."
It's crucial for Arizona that Turner continues to make strides because the Wildcats could definitely use the spark. One year removed from a Derrick Williams-led Elite Eight run and one year away from the arrival of the nation's best recruiting class, Arizona (10-5, 1-1) is simply trying to put together enough of a second-half surge to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
What has plagued Arizona most this season is a lack of interior defense against opposing back-to-the-basket scorers.
The departure of Williams and the lack of development of 7 footer Kyryl Natyazhko has forced undersized forwards Jesse Perry and Solomon Hill to guard opposing big men with mixed results. UCLA didn't even have center Joshua Smith on Thursday as a result of a concussion, yet twin brothers Travis and David Wear still lit up the Wildcats for a combined 34 points.
"The twins were really hard to guard because they didn't really bang on you in the post to get to the rim," Hill said. "They used their touch and feel. It was really hard to bring help when they were outside the box trying to shoot over you."
Turner can't do much to help Arizona's interior defense aside from pressuring the ball on the perimeter, but where he can make the Wildcats better is by continuing to develop on the offensive end.
Whereas Arizona could generate open threes last season because Williams demanded a double team on the low block, opposing defenses are more apt to blanket the perimeter and take their chances one-on-one with the Wildcats' big men this year. UCLA bottled up Arizona's transition game by only turning the ball over nine times and forced the Wildcats into 3-for-17 three-point shooting by crowding their shooters.
Where Turner can help is if he's able to get into the lane and either finish at the rim or draw help defense and kick to an open teammate. He showed the ability to get to the foul line Thursday night, but his facilitating is still a work in progress.
"They guarded our perimeter players really tight tonight and it was hard for us to get a shot off," Turner said. "I'm just going to keep working hard and try to help the team to continue to improve."