Why the Arizona Wildcats Look Like a Strong Final Four Contender
With about six weeks to go before the NCAA Tournament, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller, in his sixth season at the helm, has his team playing its best basketball, as he seeks his first Final Four appearance in the desert.
In 2014, Miller's Wildcats, who had the nation's best nERD of 19.41 entering the 2014 NCAA Tournament, was dangerously close to college basketball's biggest stage, losing to Wisconsin 64-63 in the Elite Eight. That loss, in spite of holding Wisconsin to 39.3% field goal percentage, was namely due to Arizona's inability to defend the deft post moves of Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, who finished the game with 28 points and 11 rebounds.
The return of 6'9" junior forward Brandon Ashley from a 2013-14 season ending foot injury to one of college basketball's deepest and most versatile frontcourts has led the Wildcats to a 20-2 record (8-1 Pac-12) and the number-six ranking in the latest AP poll. In fact, while most think of Pac-12 college basketball teams like their no-defense football counterparts, Arizona is one of the stingiest defensive teams in college basketball according to numberFire's defensive percentile metric. Arizona's 97.1% defensive percentile means that their defense is better than all but 2.9% of the teams in the NCAA.
This stifling defense forces opponents to shoot 40.3 percent and is first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing a paltry 55.1 points per game. Arizona also has the Pac-12's best turnover margin at +3.8, while allowing the fewest opponent offensive rebounds per game in the NCAA .
Don't Get Offended, the Wildcats Can Score Too
While the type of team defense being played results in our algorithms comparing this Arizona team to Ben Howland's 2008 UCLA Bruins with a 97.44% match, this Arizona team is not a slouch on the offensive end either. While they won't remind you of Lute Olsen's run-and-gun teams from the late 80's and early 90's with their 113th ranked offensive pace of 0.599, the team is second in the Pac-12 in scoring offense at 72.8 points per game. This is quite a feat considering they lost both lottery pick Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson to the NBA from their 2013-2014 Elite Eight team.
What may be more important for this Arizona team is that they are also leading the conference in free-throw percentage at 76.2 percent. For a team with hopes to cut down the nets in early April, this is important, especially for a team with free-throw shooting woes in the past.
Further, the Wildcats have three players averaging double figures, all in the frontcourt. 6'7" freshman sensation Stanley Johnson leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 14.5 points per game and 7.0 boards per game. Ashley is averaging 11.3 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game. Sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson comes off the bench and scores 10.9 points a game while grabbing 6.3 rebounds.
When you add in 7'0" center Kaleb Tarczewski as a rim protector who has good back to the basket moves and a pass-first point guard in T.J. McConnell (whose assist percentage of 37.5 leads the Pac-12), Arizona has a top-six rotation that can stack up with just about any team in the country.
Revenge of the nERD
Arizona's nERD of 18.72 currently ranks fifth among college basketball teams and means that, on a neutral court, the Wildcats would essentially mop the floor with an average team, beating them by 18.72 points, which is comparable to their leading 2014 pre-NCAA Tournament total from last season. While the team has a 34-game home winning streak at the McKale Center and has already beaten number-two ranked Gonzaga at home 66-63 in an overtime thriller, their recent Pac-12 domination has been in full effect.
In a recent win against Oregon State, one of the two teams to beat the Wildcats this season (the other was UNLV), Arizona held Gary Payton II and the Beavers to a paltry 34 points in a dominant 57-34 victory during which McConnell had an absurd eight steals. All of this occurred after holding Oregon, the Pac-12's highest scoring team, in check in a 90-56 victory against a solid Ducks squad that lost to Wisconsin in the round of 32 in last season's NCAA Tournament.
Bear Down May Cut Down Nets
While the team rotation of seven or eight players is not overly deep if they get into foul trouble (especially in the backcourt), defending and trying to score against the versatile and sizable frontcourt will give opponents fits in the NCAA Tournament. Still, this rotation has been one of the best all season, which is why we currently have Arizona pegged as a number-two seed (as of January 30th) in our numberFire bracketology.
Given Kentucky's dominance, Gonzaga's looking like they may not lose again in the regular season, and Virginia's playing very well, Arizona will have to continue its dominant recent play to be in the running for the fourth number-one seed. To ensure a top seed, they will have to hope that teams like Duke and Wisconsin lose a few more games, but even without getting the a number-one seed, based on their defense, versatile frontcourt, and McConnell's leadership, the Wildcats are looking like a strong Final Four contender.