With their 63-57 weekend win at No. 13 Utah, the Arizona Wildcats (26-3, 14-2 Pac-12) moved a step closer to solidifying yet another Pac-12 title. The win gave Sean Miller’s squad a season-sweep of the Utes and a two game lead with only two regular season games remaining. A third Pac-12 title in for Miller seems imminent.
Despite the consistent results and five consecutive top-five recruiting classes, however, there is still the feeling that the Wildcats have not done anything yet. National Championships and Final Fours are the goals for this storied program, yet Miller has been on the cusp without a breakthrough. Miller has twice been within a basket of Final Four participation, falling to UConn in 2011 and Wisconsin in 2014 in the Elite Eight, but is yet to make it.
If 2015 is to be the year the Cats return to the Final Four for the first time since 2001, it will likely be attributed to their defense. Arizona uses their own brand of the packline defense with much success.
The Wildcats are ranked third in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency behind only Kentucky and Virginia. They are a top-30 club in opponents eFG% (44.6%). By any measure, Arizona’s defense is championship worthy. With a frontcourt stocked with NBA-level talents like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, the Cats protect the rim and rebound with the very best in the nation.
Because of this strong defense, when the Wildcats falter, their offense gets the blame. That criticism might be unfair, though, as Arizona ranks 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency. At first glance, the Cats do not have a “beautiful” offense, but they limit turnovers, only giving it away on 17.2% of their possessions. They rebound 34.6% percent of their misses and are eighth in the country in free throw rate of 47.5. (hoop-math.com)
Offensively, the Wildcats are solid in many areas and elite in none. The word “solid” does not evoke images of flawless ball movement and inside-out threes, but it is an apt descriptor. Arizona’s offensive strengths lie in their ability to play fast, but not always beautiful, basketball. Let’s take a closer look at the Arizona transition attack.
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The trademarks of the Arizona offense are Sean Miller’s transition offense and his “drag screen” concept he calls “Phoenix” – surely an homage to their in-state NBA counterparts, the Phoenix Suns.
With reliance on these two weapons lead by steady point guard T.J. McConnell, the Wildcats play fast. Per kenpom.com, Arizona’s average offensive possession lasts 16.6 seconds (29th in NCAA).
In their transition attack, the Cats get a quick downscreen from the trailing post then get two actions, a flare screen for the passer and a pin screen for the looping guard. They often take a shot from these early actions before settling into their passing game.
Off the break, Jefferson and freshman Stanley Johnson, a projected lottery pick, are finishers. In fact, Miller’s entire roster is laden with players who aggressively attack the rim, as evidenced by the free throw rate and a FG% of 66.2% at the rim (19th in NCAA).
It is McConnell that Miller entrusts with the offense, and McConnell is enjoying a Pac-12 MVP caliber year. The point guard has a gaudy 2.98 assist-to-turnover ratio, good for 15th in the country and tops in the Pac-12.
Miller lets McConnell create in transition by using drag screens, most often from Tarczewski, in his “Phoenix” series. In this action, the trailing post sets a high ball screen for McConnell directly from the break. At times, two posts lag behind McConnell. In those cases, the Wildcats would set a double high ball screen in their Phoenix series.
The goal is to create an offensive advantage by attacking with the ball screen before the opposing defense is set. It is yet another tool that helps the Wildcats play at their desired tempo.
There are, however, problems with Arizona’s offense. While running in transition is key to Miller’s game plan, the Wildcats do not necessarily finish well in transition attacks. Running hard off the rebound, turnover or made field goal is one thing, but converting those scoring chances into points is another. Per hoop-math, Arizona has an eFG% in transition of 57.9% (only 93rd in NCAA).
When shots are not falling, Arizona attacks the rim in the hopes of getting to the foul line. And the Wildcats attack the interior with much success. Per hoop-math, they finish 66.2% of their shots at the rim (19th in the NCAA) and boast a FG% of 42.7% on two-point jumpers (6th in NCAA). So why does the stigma exist that the Wildcats have a subpar offense?
If opponents are able to keep the Wildcats off the line and defend in transition, a large part of the Arizona offense is lost. In a February 22nd contest with UCLA, Arizona needed over six minutes to find their first points, falling behind 7-0 to start the game. The Wildcats then opened the second half with a gruesome scoring drought allowing UCLA to reel off 17 unanswered points, before finally cracking the scoring column at the 13:11 mark of the second half. Surprisingly, Arizona still won the game, but similar droughts of varying severity are far too common. In their pivotal win over Utah, the Wildcats missed their first 10 field goal attempts of the second half.
While the Arizona defense is outstanding enough to keep them in games when the offense falters, scoring droughts are a recipe for elimination in postseason play.
The Wildcats lack a perimeter threat among their starting five. Arizona has only one starter, McConnell, shooting about 30% from deep during conference play, and McConnell is much more vital as a playmaker than a perimeter shooter. The Cats’ top wing threat, Johnson, is only 11-41 from behind the arc in Pac-12 play. As a result, teams have begun to concede the shot and sag off to defend Johnson’s relentless attacks of the paint. Johnson has attacked the rim anyway, but that too can be problematic as he has had problems finishing at times, going 6-17 at Arizona State, 1-9 vs UCLA and 3-19 at Utah.
Senior guard Gabe York has at least provided some perimeter shooting coming off the bench, shoooting 24-63 (38%) from three-point range during Pac-12 play. But York can be streaky as well, shooting 2-8 at Washington, 1-5 vs USC and 1-6 at Utah from behind the arc. Further, the Wildcats surrender their massive size advantage somewhat when playing the 6’3″ York alongside the 6’1″ McConnell.
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Another reason for Arizona’s offensive flaws could be a disconnect between offensive and defensive philosophies. In the packline, teams play man-to-man but do not extend into passing lanes. They instead help early and deter opponents from driving the basketball. This results in lengthy defensive possessions for the Wildcats, with opponents passing the ball east-to-west around the perimeter looking for an opportunity.
Often, opponents rush a shot after 25-30 seconds have run off the shot clock. The Wildcats then go and take their own shot in an average of 16.6 seconds, often much quicker. Playing fast on offense and coupling it with the conservative packline means the Cats surrender the “time of possession” to their opponents and spend most of the night on the defensive end of the floor.
However, as mentioned in the opening, defense is a strength of the team, and it directly fuels the offense. It is not particularly pretty nor elite, but the Wildcats win plenty of possessions through their defense and rebounding, and even without many shooters, they make enough of their looks. While the halfcourt may bog down at times, the transition game is a weapon, and if they can avoid the stifling droughts, the Wildcats score enough to compete with anyone.
The Pac-12 has not been represented in the Final Four since UCLA made it to San Antonio in 2008. Miller and the Wildcats have twice come as close as a team possibly can without actually qualifying. The program cut down the nets in Indianapolis, site of this year’s Final Four, 15 years ago. And that is too long of a wait for some in Tucson.
This year’s Wildcats team is deeper and better offensively than the 2014 version that fell a game short of the Final Four. Defensively, Arizona is ready. And behind an under-appreciated transition-based offense, that despite its flaws has been productive, this might be the year Miller sheds the “best coach who hasn’t been to a Final Four” label.
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