Wednesday’s 70-52 win over Washington provided Wildcat fans a glimpse into the team Sean Miller and his coaching staff has been trying to build for three-plus seasons; a team with size, speed, and a willingness to commit itself to defense to spur on its offense. The road hasn’t always been smooth. A run to the Elite Eight two seasons ago was wedged between two campaigns that resulted in Arizona missing the NCAA Tournament, entirely, a rarity down here in the desert southwest. Still, this morning, reflecting back on last night’s performance, it’s obvious that the ride, albeit bumpy, was worth it.
Did Arizona's win over Washington mean no more losses like the one suffered to Oregon in Eugene?
Arizona (22-4, 10-4 Pac-12) might not win a Pac-12 title this season. As of now, they’ll need help from conference-leading Oregon to drop, at a minimum, two more games and that’s only if Arizona goes undefeated in its final four regular season tips. There’s always the conference tournament, which will be held in Las Vegas, Nevada, but even that event promises no guarantees as the rowdy, neutral court environment should serve to produce upsets galore in the most competitive conference in the country top to bottom.
The end game, naturally, is to win league, excel in the conference tournament, play in the Big Dance, reach the Final Four, and win a national championship. While spotty play over the last month may have put the Wildcats behind the proverbial eight-ball to finish atop the conference standings in early March, the team’s goals for even bigger and better things remains intact. In fact, after last night’s effort, the goals not only remain tangible, but now appear attainable.
Following Arizona win, I made it a point to listen to the post game analysis. Unfortunately, a majority of the commentary focused on how bad Washington is this season. While true, the analysis missed the point.
Arizona’s toughest opponent this season has always been Arizona.
The Wildcats are a top five team this year when they play Miller’s brand of Arizona Wildcats basketball. Regardless of opponent, Arizona is night-and-day better when teamwork and execution trumps individual accomplishment. This isn’t to disparage any single player, or even hint at poor team chemistry. Instead, it’s a fact of life every elite college basketball team has faced for decades; the ability to maintain consistency over the course of a season. Arizona has already failed in this respect, but it’s also the reason fans hear so many head coaches on the podium talk about “building our team so we’re playing our best basketball come March.”
Kansas went on a three-game slide, recently, but has since recovered, which included a monumental overtime win over No. 14 Oklahoma State last night. Bill Self said of the losing streak, “It forced our coaching staff to reevaluate our entire team and start coaching again.”
Arizona had a similar awakening following a marginal 68-64 road win over Utah last Sunday.
As first reported by Wildcat Sports Report, Miller pulled little-used freshman guard Gabe York aside following the game and told him he would not only play against Washington, but play valuable minutes moving forward. York made the decision easy for Miller as the frosh worked hard to improve his defensive intensity the last two weeks in practice.
The last time Wildcat fans saw York on the floor early in the first half was against these same Huskies. On that day, a hard-fought road victory in Seattle, Husky Andrew Andrews went 1-for-4 from the field in 26 minutes of action. His lone basket came with York guarding him. Last night, York proved worthy of the challenge as he was lock-step with both Andrews and Abdul Gaddy. While Gaddy did get into the lane once on York, the rest of the time Gaddy had a difficult time doing anything with the basketball as York aggressively battled over the top of every high screen.
And then came the shot.
With 13:08 remaining and Arizona already amidst a game-deciding 16-4 scoring run, Miller ran a designed play that sent York streaking across the floor on an elbow-high cross court cut. Nick Johnson delivered a perfect pass to York, who then maintained perfect balance and flow to catch, turn and drain a 3-Pointer without ever dribbling or hesitating to gather his self. There’s not a single Wildcat on the roster capable of making that cut and basket. More accurately, there might not be 10 NCAA players in Division 1 this season capable of making that shot.
In short, this is the level of talent Miller has at his disposal, and it doesn’t end with York.
Miller recruited Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett, and Kaleb Tarczewski to not only add size to the roster, but also shot-blocking ability and all-around quickness. Like York’s inaugural season as a Wildcat, things haven’t always been smooth for the freshmen frontline. However, last night they too showed signs of why they belong in an Arizona uniform. Against Washington, Ashley and Tarczewski combined for 20 points and 13 rebounds. Together, along with Jerrett, they helped Arizona host somewhat of a shot-blocking party as the team swatted away eight Husky shot attempts, with half of those leading directly to transition points.
The reason this is important is the Wildcats, as talented as they are, have a tendency to become stagnant in their offensive sets. However, as last night indicated, the team doesn’t even have to run and gun for 40 minutes to be effective. They do, however, need to get out in transition enough to get the adrenaline pumping and keep them focused and aggressive even when the game slows down.
A perfect example is the play of Johnson. The sophomore guard is a streaky shooter, but oftentimes leaves fans wanting more from the perimeter. However, in the open court, there are few players in the country that can match his athleticism and ability to finish in transition. Further, once Johnson does get some buckets at the rim, magically his jump shot appears.
A second reason why the play of all four freshmen is critical is if they’re contributing it forces the opponent to at least respect their abilities and hence open up more one-on-one opportunities for the backbone of this team, the Wildcat seniors. No one doubts Mark Lyons’ ability to dribble-drive and score or draw fouls inside the painted area. Still, his dribble penetration is twice as effective within the flow of Arizona’s offense, particularly midway through the shot clock, rather than when the senior point guard tries to do too much with the basketball too early in the half court set. The same can be said of both Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom. Each is much more effective after their second catch in a possession compared to their first.
As WSR’s Brad Allis pointed out during last night’s AM1290 The Source post game radio show, in addition to the shot blocks, the steals and Arizona’s willingness to track down the long rebounds, the biggest change fans witnessed last night was after such hustle plays the Wildcats didn’t hesitate in transitioning from defense to offense. Johnson had three of his five assists in transition. Even York scooped up a loose ball (should have been categorized as a steal in the official stat book) and immediately pushed the basketball up the court before delivering a perfect pass to Johnson in stride for an easy layup.
As discussed, the Wildcats don’t need to fast break on every play, but they do need to play fast as a team to constantly apply pressure to the opponent. Last night’s team effort (Miller went 10-deep), and more specifically its 40 minutes of hustle, helped the Wildcats overcome a sloppy start on offense (eight points in the game’s first 11 minutes) to go on to score 62 points over the final 28 minutes and shoot 61% from the floor in the second half to rout Washington, 70-52.
Consistency and sustained effort will determine how successful the Wildcats close out the remainder of the season. Play hard and execute as a team and they can achieve multiple benchmarks. Revert to some bad habits and losses like those to Oregon, UCLA, California and Colorado won’t be Arizona’s last.
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