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Can Arizona run the table?

Can Arizona actually run the table and go undefeated this season? As ridiculous as the question may seem to Pac-12 supporters who know the simple truth that no conference team has ever finished 18-0 in league, after watching the Wildcats produce their third miraculous comeback of the young season the question begs consideration.

Nick Johnson and Arizona have already snatched victory from what appeared to be sure defeat three times this season.

In the Wildcat Sports Report pre-season predictions contest, I thought Arizona could go undefeated during non-conference play. They did. There were a couple of tough, really tough tests along the way. Notably, games against Florida and San Diego State saw the Gators and Aztecs appear to have things under control the majority of the game only to see Arizona find ways, mostly through excellent defensive play, to snatch victory from defeat. While the remainder of the schedule wasn’t something to write to mom and dad about, it’s notable that Arizona defeated its seven opponents in McKale Center by an average of 18.5 points per game. Arizona, in short, handled its business and enters Pac-12 play as the team to beat over the next two months.

As Arizona prepares for league play, the question must be asked; can Arizona go undefeated in the Pac-12?

Some will cringe at the thought of the question even being raised, particularly the superstitious types. Does the mere mention create some sort of jinx?

Personally, I don’t think asking the question ruins Arizona’s chances even though as I was considering the production for this article the Wildcats looked dead in the water against Colorado, down 16 near the midpoint of the second half. I swallowed a deep gulp on Thursday thinking I was going to be the stereotypical announcer that ices a foul shooter by saying something like this during a broadcast; “he hasn’t missed in his last 18 attempts,” seconds before the foul shooter clanks his next free throw attempt off the back of the rim?

But let’s get serious, if I’m guilty of raising the question, aren’t we all? Be honest with yourself, has the notion crossed your mind in the past few weeks? And what about the coaching staff and players? Are they immune to such thoughts, married to their press conference-speak about taking things one game at a time?

Before we assess Arizona’s chances of winning out, let’s take a look at a few of the undefeated seasons in the history of Division 1 college basketball.

In the history of the NCAA tourney, only nine teams have gone undefeated through the entire regular season, and the NCAA tournament.

Bill Russell led the San Francisco Dons to a perfect 29-0 season in ’55-56, The next season, North Carolina beat a Kansas team featuring Wilt Chamberlain in the NCAA final to finish 32-0.

There is no quit in Sean Miller or his Wildcats.

John Wooden at UCLA accomplished more undefeated seasons than any other college coach, five, beginning with the 63-64 team, and then in 66-67, 71-72, and 72-73, all going 30-0 and winning the national title. And then in Bill Walton’s final season, UCLA went 32-0 and beat Memphis in the title game with Walton scoring 44 points and missing only one shot from the field.

One of the greatest teams in NCAA history was Bobby Knight’s 75-76 Indiana squad, which won the NCAA title and finished 32-0. Notably, Coach Knight’s squad was the last unbeaten college basketball has seen. That’s almost 40 years!

Outstanding as all of these teams were, the game has changed drastically. Long gone are the days when a school like UCLA could absolutely dominate the national recruiting landscape and literally lure in top position players, annually.

In the last few decades, only a few teams have gone undefeated in the regular season. Larry Bird’s 1979 Indiana State Sycamores finished their regular season at 29-0, and survived a scare against New Mexico State in February of that year relying on a half court heave at the buzzer that banked in to preserve a one point victory. Indiana State lost in the title game of the NCAA tournament to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in a matchup that was a prelude to many great NBA games between the two players affectionately known as the guys who saved professional basketball.

In 1991, the University of Las Vegas finished out the regular season undefeated, and also suffered their only loss in the NCAA title game to Duke, an incredibly humbling finale.

So, going undefeated in the regular season is rare, very rare. In fact, including Indiana State and UNLV, only 10 other teams have had perfect regular season records dating back to 1939. Of note, the 1976 Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the 2004 St. Joseph Hawks went undefeated in the regular season. The North Carolina State Wolfpack went undefeated in the 1973 season, but was declared ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to rules violations.

Working against Arizona’s odds for a perfect regular season record is the fact that since the Pacific 8 conference expanded to 10, then 12 teams, no conference school has gone undefeated in league. Forget about a perfect season, Pac-12 schools historically haven’t been able to run the expanded 18-game slate.

However, there have been seven 17-1 seasons and Arizona has had five of those!

Simply stated, senior Kevin Parrom finds ways to get things done.

While we’re just speculating – dare I say daydreaming – let’s consider some advantages Arizona has for the remainder of the season.

Depth: Arizona has three players who can play point guard; Lyons, Johnson and Mayes. It’s nice to have that many players at such a critical position.

At shooting guard, Arizona can rotate in Johnson, Parrom, and Mayes, and that’s before even getting to the best shooter on the team, Gabe York. With Solomon Hill, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Angelo Chol on the frontline, Arizona is a deep and flexible team. Miller can go big or small based on the situation which bodes well for the variety of offensive styles and defensive schemes Arizona will face in the Pac-12.

Another upside is that the three freshmen at the center/forward positions are still learning and growing in the step up to Division 1 basketball. In a tough, physical game, Arizona has a lot of fouls to give and while fouling is not exactly what Sean Miller wants out of his club, foul trouble isn’t of particular concern. Heck, on Thursday night Solomon Hill had four fouls thanks to three charging calls and spent a chunk of the second half on the bench. No problem as Arizona overcame a 16-point second half deficit (10 points with 1:53 to go) to win.

While much has been made about the inexperience of the freshmen post players (and rightly so) the leadership provided by the three seniors, Hill, Parrom and Lyons, will be a critical factor in determining Arizona’s success in conference games. Parrom, the “Sixth Man,” actually ranks fifth on the roster in minutes played, and is the best three point shooter on the team hitting 47% of shots beyond the arc. The senior swingman is also the second best free throw shooter on the team among those with 10 or more attempts at an impressive 88%. Parrom gives Arizona’s bench the advantage over any other team in the Pac-12 and over the course of 18 games, that’s a significant advantage.

Free Throw Shooting: In close games, free throw shooting becomes very important and in the first 12 games, Arizona has shot 108 more free throws than opponents. The team is averaging 76% at the free throw line, which is very good as a collective unit. Of the top seven players in minutes played, only Kaleb Tarczewski is shooting less than 70% and his percentage is way down there near 50%. Six of the top nine players in minutes played are shooting above 75%, which again gives Arizona a significant advantage against opponents. The ability of this team to not only draw fouls but convert at the free throw line is a huge advantage in conference play. That works out to almost eight points per game more than the opposition from the free throw line alone.

Arizona fans love to compare Sean Miller to hall of fame coach Lute Olson, and rightfully so. Well, go back through history and you’ll find that Olson’s best teams always got to the foul line more than their opponents and as a team, typically shot close to or slightly above 75% on the season.

Defense: Arizona is shooting almost 48% from the field while limiting opponents to just under 39%, which is an excellent differential. Arizona has outscored its opponents by 17 points per game, limiting them to 59 points per game prior to the 82 points they gave up to Colorado. In addition, the Wildcats are grabbing 10 more rebounds per game than their opponents (they had an 8-rebound advantage over CU on Thursday). Great transition and half court defense only matters if you can secure rebounds after missed shots. Arizona is quickly evolving into a very solid rebounding team after a few early season struggles.

Balance: Probably the best thing that can be said about this Arizona team is that it is efficient. It does many things well, but after 12 games nothing truly stands out as a strength that a team builds an identity on. Even Arizona’s headstrong defense needs improvement, which in and of itself is an incredibly scary thought for future opponents. Mark Lyons has proven that he wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line, and Parrom and Hill have also performed well in the clutch. However, just like Arizona’s occasional defensive lapses, even Arizona’s most experienced seniors haven’t proven to be immune to the occasional boneheaded mistake.

Conference play will feature some hostile environments such as the renovated Pauley Pavilion, Coors Events Center in Boulder, and Hec Edmunson Pavilion in Seattle to name a few. There’s also certain arenas that are simply flat-out difficult to play in for road teams due to tricky sight lines such as Washington States arena, the new god-awful floor at Oregon and the windowpane backdrop behind the student section at USC’s Galen Center. There’s also the simple, hidden fact that the Pac-12 is likely the deepest conference in the country. I’m talking top-to-bottom here. While the league might not be as top heavy as others, all 12 teams in league are good, not great, but good. That alone makes it very difficult for any team, including undefeated and third-ranked Arizona, to run the table over two full months of conference play. Arizona not only needs to play well night in and night out, but they likely need to actually improve their play over the course of the season if they plan to even entertain the idea of defying history and setting a new, unprecedented standard in the modern era of Pac-12 basketball.

So, could Arizona finish the regular season undefeated? We all know it is highly unlikely, but at this point, Arizona would have to be looked upon as the favored team in each of the upcoming conference games on the home or on the road.

The next eight games, all in the month of January, will feature an interesting contrast of styles and will reveal a great deal about the strength of the Pac 12 conference. In the unbalanced Pac 12 conference schedule, Arizona plays the following teams only once; Oregon and Oregon State (away) and Stanford and California (home).

If Arizona wins out in January, we’ll revisit this topic again. For now, I’ll stick by my prediction of 15-3 within the conference, but I can’t figure out just where those losses might come. Teams with inferior talent win games against good teams who suffer an off night. In my opinion, that is what stands between Arizona and an undefeated regular season, not having an off night. They looked that way against Colorado for nearly 30 minutes of regulation but somehow found a way to again find a way.

Still, as Arizona proved against Colorado, what works to their advantage is they do so many things well as a team it becomes difficult for an opponent to rest their hat on achieving only a few in-game goals like shutting down Solomon Hill, or even winning the rebounding advantage. Arizona has proved already it can struggle in certain areas like rebounding or 3-Point shooting efficiency, but they aren’t likely to fail in every category that makes them the league favorite.

Arizona isn’t the most consistent team yet across the statistical stratosphere, but they are consistent enough in digging deep and doing all the little things they must do in order to produce victories. That alone makes them a tough team to beat.

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