By John Vasington
Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are changing the way basketball is played, but Arizona and Coach Sean Miller still haven’t gotten the memo. Miller has led the Wildcats to a 13-1 start and 7th overall ranking in the AP poll with a style of play the “Splash Brothers” would scoff at. Surprisingly, all of Arizona’s success has come with little help from the three point shot.
To date, only 20.6% of Arizona’s points on offense have been supplied by three point shots, the 332nd lowest mark in the country (nation average is 29.1%), with only one team in the PAC 12 and AP Top 10 respectively scoring fewer points from long range. The fact that the Wildcats shoot so few threes, accounting for only 28.6% of their shots as a team (nation average is 35.1%), is often misperceived as a disadvantage. In truth, it fits the brand of basketball Miller wants to play. With this unique style, the team or individual players can have cold shooting nights and Arizona will still often come out on top. Currently, the Wildcats have recorded two RPI top 100 wins while shooting under 34% from deep. As a matter of fact, on the season, Arizona is only shooting 33.9% from three, a less than admirable mark that is good for 174th in the country and 9th in the PAC 12.
So perhaps the scariest thing about this year’s version of Miller’s perennial contender is they still have so much room to grow if they start converting at a higher clip from downtown. Apart from their primary shooter, Junior SG Gabe York (shooting 43.6% on 78 threes), few players have been making the long balls. However, Freshman SG Alonzo Trier and Senior stretch-four Mark Tollefsen (San Francisco transfer) have just started to find their mark. Trier has knocked down 45.8% while Tollefsen has hit 46.2% of their attempts from deep in the past 6 games. Throughout the first 8 games, Trier was making just 15% and Tollefsen was only slightly better at 25%. If those two can even close to match York’s production from deep then the Pac 12 better watch out for this already dangerous offense.
Rather than launch three pointers from all directions, Arizona beats teams with a balanced attack and a lot of action going towards the basket. This season, seven Wildcats are averaging over 8 PPG. The offense is built to take advantage of mismatches; drive and dish, pick and roll, and isolation type plays are its primary source of points. Sean Miller is known to attack individual matchups, resulting in different marquee players each game. In the young fourteen game season, no player has led Arizona in scoring for more than four games, and six different Wildcats have been the team’s main source of point production for at least one forty minute stretch this season. This commitment to a balanced team style of play on offense is what has led to most of the success the Wildcat’s have enjoyed thus far, and that mentality carries over to the defensive end as well.
Despite limited efforts made to shoot three pointers on the offensive end, Sean Miller’s team has a considerable amount of respect for the arc on the defensive side of the ball. The key for Arizona is knowing the opponent. The hours they spend studying tendencies of individual players on the opposing teams pay off and are clearly shown through the way they play. When covering above average shooters you will find Wildcats fighting over screens and making sure to always have a hand up, closing out well on stretch-fours and shooters in the corners. Against below average shooters, however, you will see Arizona’s defensive scheme leaving them open on the perimeter, daring them to make shots. Through this defensive identity, Arizona is able to hold its opponents to a mere 29.1% from deep; good for 16th in the country and 1st in the Pac 12. Due to this low opponent three point percentage and the few clean looks U of A allows, only 24.7% of points scored against them come from the three point shot. Just one other team in the AP Top 10 gives up a lower percentage of points from deep.
Defending the three point line so well must come at the cost of interior defense. Despite having experience playing Center on an undersized Boston College team, non-conference play showed Senior F Ryan Anderson was not going to be the interior force necessary for grueling Pac 12 conference play. This is why the long awaited return of Senior C Kaleb Tarczewski could not have come at a better time. He will anchor the defense and should allow the guards to get even more aggressive and risky defensively now that they know they have a true rim protector which, apart from Sophomore C Dusan Ristic, they had been lacking. Tarczewski’s return will also allow Tollefsen to continue to find his game from beyond the arc (he shot 38.2% in three seasons as a San Francisco Don) as he will no longer be relied on to score as many points in the paint.
With all of these strengths one wonders, how can a team beat the Wildcats? It won’t be easy by any means, but there are a few things the opposition can try to do. First, turn Arizona over. When a team shoots as few threes as Sean Miller’s teams do, they must be efficient on the offensive end, which the Wildcats are; currently ranking 27th in the nation on KenPom in offensive efficiency. Their point guards, Sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Junior Kadeem Allen, attack the rim with persistence; creating opportunites for teammates. That said, when teams keep them out of the driving lanes and limit passing options they can be prone to turnovers. In Arizona’s one loss to Providence, they had 21 turnovers (31.3% of their possessions). In that game, the Friars spread the ball with 21 team assists (77.8% of their baskets), another necessity if a team wishes to take down the Wildcats. Providence Coach Ed Cooley respected Arizona’s commitment to team defense and had his guards took advantage of Wildcat big men who helped on drives, leaving their man open. The only other way to take down Arizona is to both shoot a lot of threes and make a lot of threes (like Santa Clara almost did in their OT loss, hitting 10 of 26). Despite having all of that knowledge, as Sean Miller’s teams have shown us, when it comes to the three ball, you won’t have much luck against his Wildcats.