Arizona basketball strives to improve three-point defense
For everything that the No. 9 Arizona men’s basketball team has done right this season, winning all three games, averaging 82.7 points per game and holding opponents to an average of 65.3 points, there is one glaring weakness Wildcat players have noticed in the first three games.
“The three-point shot can hurt us,” senior forward Solomon Hill said after last week’s 94-72 win over Long Beach State, in which the 49ers drained 14-of-32 three-point shots.
The Wildcats have allowed their first three opponents to make 29-of-74 three pointers, a 39.2 percent clip. Last season, Arizona’s three-point percentage defense was the most notable defensive statistic, allowing a Pac-12 best 28.5 percent from beyond the arc.
“Three-point defense is really something we were big on the last couple years and something that we got away from this year,” Hill said.
Part of the reason the perimeter was so well guarded in recent years was due to former UA guard Kyle Fogg. Often lauded as the Wildcats’ best on-ball defender in his time at Arizona, Fogg was “that one player you can point to, where you know he’s going to guard the other team’s best wing player, and he does it well,” according to head coach Sean Miller.
“Kyle Fogg took that mantle a year ago. He was a big part of that. We’re still looking for that player.”
A leading candidate to fill Fogg’s role is sophomore guard Nick Johnson.
“Defensively, he’s playing better than at any time during his freshman season,” Miller said. “If you watch us play, a lot of the times the guy who is most in tune with his teammates is Nick. It’s important that he stays consistent with everything that he’s done this far.”
In today’s match up with NAU, the Wildcats will again be tested by players adept at shooting the three. Leading scorers and guards DeWayne Russell and Gabe Rogers have shot a combined 25-of-68 from beyond the arc, a 36.8 percent clip. Both also average more than 15 points a game.
Like Arizona’s three previous opponents, Charleston Southern, UTEP and Long Beach State, NAU plays an offense with fast-paced transitions that can result in three-pointer shots.
“When you get a fast break team, that’s the style they like to play,” Hill said after the Long Beach State game. “If you run into a team like BYU, like we did a few years ago, it could be a long night for us.”
Against the Cougars in 2009, the Wildcats allowed 14 made three-pointers, including nine by former BYU guard Jimmer Fredette.
Arizona has had a long break since its last game, and guarding Rogers and Russell at the three-point line could be the difference between a fourth straight win to open the season and an untimely upset.
“You watch these games where upsets happen. It’s usually the guards have big nights, or big nights from three or the team has a huge night from the three,” Miller said. “Our guards will have two really challenging matchups with those two players.”
Another problem haunting the Wildcats is the youth they are playing at almost every position. In both the frontcourt and backcourt are freshmen players, who have only played three regular season collegiate games.
“Part of what we’re going through is youth,” Miller said. “Until we get more game experience, some of the lessons we need to learn we’re going to have on our side. It’s a matter of mindset here early on.”