Can Arizona Win the National Championship?
When Arizona started the season 21-0 and rose to number one overall in the polls, it was nearly impossible to find a seat on the over-crowded Wildcats' bandwagon. This Sean Miller coached squad was not only one of the preseason favorites but easily passed the eye test while navigating through a treacherous out-of-conference schedule.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, when their 22nd game was over, their bandwagon was a bit less crowded. While the end result of the game was a 60-58 defeat at the hands of a less-than-stellar Cal team, Arizona's biggest loss from that game was not that the number on the right-hand side of their record changed from a zero to a one. But rather the news that one of their star players, sophomore forward Brandon Ashley, would miss the the remainder of the season with a foot injury. At the time of his injury, Ashley was the Wildcat's third leading scorer, third leading rebounder and one of their premier defenders. Losing a play of his caliber would set any team back.
With that said, Arizona was able to close their season strong, finishing the year with an extremely respectable 30-4 record and the outright Pac-12 regular season title. Although losing Ashley was a major setback, the fact that the Wildcats had nearly two months to reinvent themselves without him was critical. This grace period allowed Arizona to regain their composure, make a deep run in the Pac-12 tournament (losing to UCLA in the finals) and become the number one seeded team in their home West region. Additionally, the Pac-12 regular season champs head into the NCAA Tournament with the best nERD in the nation at 19.41.
That's not to say they're automatically our pick to win the title - you'll have to check out our optimal bracket for that. But don't sleep on this Wildcats team. Here are six reasons why.
When you look at this Arizona team, the first thing that jumps out is that they are physically imposing. The Wildcats feature a number of guys who possess the type of length and athleticism that would have made Al Davis drool. Arizona's frontcourt is comprised of a sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski, a seven-footer with a huge wingspan, and two extremely versatile freshman swing-forwards with ridiculous bounce in Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Although their guards do not possess elite size, specifically T.J. McConnell at 6'1'' and 195 pounds, junior PG Nick Johnson is quick enough to stay with any guard in the nation and strong enough to keep them out of the paint. Additionally, Arizona rotates in three long, athletic guards off of their bench in Jordin Mayes, Gabe York and Elliott Pitts.
What makes this Arizona team unique is the fact that Hollis-Jefferson is able to play both SF and PF, while Gordon is able to slide into both forward spots or center. The versatility and athleticism of these freshmen forwards gives coach Sean Miller the ability to mix and match his personal based on matchups. The Wildcats can run a lineup with Tarczewski at center and with Gordon at PF and Hollis-Jefferson on the wing, or they can play small ball with three guards on the floor with Hollis-Jefferson at forward and Gordon anchoring the defense. Depending on what the situation calls for, the Wildcats can create mismatches by overpowering their opponent, or with Aaron Gordon's supreme athleticism at the center spot. Arizona's ability to dictate the matchups and adapt quickly was a huge part of their success this season and should give them a huge advantage in the Big Dance.
The Wildcat's elite athleticism doesn't only help create mismatches on offense, but also makes the West region's top seed an extremely potent defensive team. According to our metrics, Arizona is the third-best defensive team in the country, sporting a 89.2 defensive rating which is good for fourth in the nation. Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and McConnell all have individual defensive ratings under 90, while the rest of the Wildcat's regular rotation all posting defensive ratings below 95.
Arizona possess many qualities that help make them an elite defense, but the two that really stand out are their ability to control the glass and their backcourt's ability to steal the basketball. The Wildcats rank 27th in the nation grabbing 26.3 defensive boards per game, and 18th in the country with an impressive 38.9 offensive rebounds per game. With Arizona dominating the glass on both sides of the ball, they're able to dictate the pace of the game, which is a major reason why the Wildcats hold opposing teams to the fourth-fewest points in the country at 58.1 per game.
Additionally, with McConnell and Johnson averaging a combined 2.9 steals per game (1.8 and 1.1 respectively), the Pac-12 regular season champs are often able to quickly turn defense into offense, giving them an opportunity to often get out in transition where their athleticism becomes an even bigger asset. This can be especially helpful in slow, deliberately paced games, a style that is common in the NCAA Tournament and really suits this Arizona squad.
Outstanding Guard Play
As much as I've talked about how important Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are to Arizona's success, their most consistent play has come from their backcourt all season long. Junior guard Nick Johnson has emerged as a true star this season, leading the Wildcats with 16.2 points per game while adding 4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Johnson, who is sporting an impressive 117.9 offensive rating coming into the tournament, has really been the go-to-guy for Arizona on offense. Not only does the junior from Gilbert, Arizona lead the Wildcat's regular rotation players with a 26.2% usage percentage, but he also leads the team in offensive win shares with 3.3. In fact, nobody else on the Wildcats' roster even has two offensive win shares, which just goes to show how important Johnson has been for Arizona offensively.
While the Wildcats do run more plays through Johnson than anyone else on the team, the player who has the ball in his hands the majority of the time is third-year PG T.J. McConnell. Although McConnell does not have the same ability to score as Johnson does, what McConnell brings to the table is a true floor general. With a spectacular 3.07 assist to turnover ratio, McConnell is as trustworthy as anyone in the country with the ball in his hands and is Arizona's best passer by far. The Duquesne transfer leads the Wildcats with a whopping 31.8% assist percentage and is second on the team (behind only Johnson) in offensive win shares at 1.9. These two guards have been nothing short of spectacular this season and played a huge part in leading Arizona to a one seed in the Big Dance.
Balanced Offensive Attack
Considering I already talked about how big of an impact Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson and McConnell all have had on the Wildcats' offense, you may have guessed that Arizona features one of the most balanced offensive units in the country. Johnson, Gordon and McConnell all have usage percentages above 20% and Hollis-Jefferson has a usage percentage between 19% and 20%. Ultimately, what this means is that Arizona is open to running plays for pretty much any player on the floor depending on who has the most favorable matchup.
Part of what makes Arizona's offense so effective is their willingness to share the ball. Five Wildcat players average at least an assist per game, including sophomore guard Gabe York who averages 1.5 assists per game despite playing just 21.1 minutes per game. All of this unselfish play has been a major contributor to their super efficient offense. The Wildcats' regular rotation features five players with an offensive rating better than 110, which has helped lead the West region's top seed to a 0.912 offensive effectiveness which is good for 32nd in the country.
One of the main reasons why the pollsters and computers both have been so high on Arizona all season long is their strength of schedule. The Pac-12 regular season champions loaded their out-of-conference schedule with tough opponents, scheduling five non-conference teams that would eventually make the Big Dance. What was most impressive about Arizona's early-season, non-conference run was that they went undefeated out-of-conference, including victories over the Midwest region's second and third seed - Michigan and Duke - as well as the Midwest region's four seed in San Diego State, just to name a few.
In addition, Arizona ran through a loaded Pac-12 finishing 15-3 in the Pac-12 regular season, three games better than the Pac-12 tournament champions UCLA. During their run through the Pac-12, the Wildcats defeated an additional five tournament-bound teams: UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford (twice) and Colorado (three times). Although they did eventually lose a razor close 75-71 game against UCLA in the finals of the Pac-12 tournament, there is no question that Arizona was the most impressive team to come out of the Pac-12.
Taking all of this into consideration, the Wildcats' season ended with a strength of schedule that was good for eighth-best in the country. Additionally, Arizona finished the season with the second-best rating on the Simple Rating System (a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule) with an outstanding 24.02 rating. Arizona comes into the NCAA Tournament as unquestionably one of the most battle-tested teams in the nation, which should give them a huge advantage in trying to make a run through the field of 68 high-quality opponents.
Wide Open West
As Justin Elick points out in his article examining which region is the toughest, the West region seems to present only a few road blocks for Arizona's potential run to the Final Four. Although a "third round" matchup with Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and the dangerous Oklahoma State Cowboys could definitely produce fireworks, there are few teams that pose true threats to Arizona in the West. The four-seeded San Diego State Aztecs, five-seeded Oklahoma Sooners and six-seeded Baylor Bears are all on upset alert in their "second round" games against really tough opponents in New Mexico State, North Dakota State and Nebraska, and although San Diego State is a defensive juggernaut, they simply do not have the offensive firepower to contend with the supreme athleticism of Arizona.
The team that could pose the biggest threat to Arizona coming out of the West is the Creighton Bluejays. Led by consensus player of the year and one of Stew Bratcher's players capable of taking over the NCAA Tournament Doug Mcdermott, the Bluejays are a terrifying matchup for any team in the tournament field simply because of what McDermott is capable of. Based on what he was able to accomplish this season, it's hard to predict any team shutting him down, but if any team is capable of doing so its Arizona. Aaron Gordon has the perfect combination of size and athleticism to stick with the Creighton star and should force the Bluejays to run more of their offense through their role players than they would like.
If Arizona is able to make it's way out of the wide open West region, they would be staring down matchups with two of the other four best teams in the country, and that's when the real fun begins. Even without one of their best players, Sean Miller has built this Wildcats team to make a deep run in the tournament. The question is: will they be able to win two games against elite opponents once they get to Dallas?