Cal game exposes Arizona basketball's offensive deficiencies
Efficiency is key to overcoming that
Defense wins championships. The best defense is a good offense. These are known as two of the biggest cliches in sports. It is almost as big a cliche to point out that they’re cliches in the lede to a sports story.
But who would do that?
Anyway, Arizona is 20-3, and its defense might be the biggest reason for the success of its season so far.
The offense is pretty good too, but Sunday’s 77-69 loss to California exposed a glaring offensive weakness for the Wildcats — they struggle against a good zone defense.
Before Sunday’s game, Cal hadn’t really employed a zone. After, a media member asked Golden Bears head coach Mike Montgomery why they didn’t.
“There would be a question for Arizona,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s just a matter of … seeing how it works, seeing if that’s the thing that’s going to work in that game. I’m sure [UA head coach] Sean [Miller] was frustrated with their ball movement in the zone. It was kind of played to our advantage in this game.”
It was by no means Arizona’s worst offensive performance (see: UCLA loss). The Wildcats shot 50 percent (9-of-18) from 3-point range, committed nine turnovers and attempted 24 free throws. But they also shot 34 percent on twos and missed eight free throws.
“We’ve won a lot of games with far less excellence on offense,” Miller said.
This game was not a very good example of a good defensive effort — Cal shot 58.8 percent from the field, a season-high against the UA — and that was perhaps the biggest factor in the Golden Bears’ effective defense.
“The real key was that we scored every time,” Montgomery said. “The point being that it allowed us to get back in a zone. When we ran into a problem is when we quit scoring. Then we tried to transition to get back into zone. We weren’t very good, then all of a sudden they were getting drives and stuff.”
What does that all mean?
To a man, the Cal effort might look like an anomaly. In a long season, teams have off nights and, again, 20-3 is nothing to frown at.
But Cal’s victory also exposed how the Wildcats’ defense has carried them this season, and that it’s hidden a few problems that Cal (and Oregon for that matter) exposed and future opponents might follow suit. However, it’s fixable.
And it’s all in the numbers.
According to TeamRankings.com, 47.2 percent of Arizona’s points have come from twos, which is the lowest percentage in the Pac-12. By comparison, UCLA gets 62.9, Cal 62.6 and Oregon 56.8.
The Wildcats score on 3-pointers in 30.8 percent of their points, which trails only Washington State in the Pac-12.
That says that the Wildcats are a good 3-point shooting team, which is good. Scoring inside the arc might be a bigger issue to watch for.
“We didn’t pass the ball. We didn’t get moving,” Solomon Hill said after the Cal game. “Every shot that we took was a one-on-one shot, trying to go beat your man instead of a shot from a pass and kick. A pass one more [time] to an open shot. We didn’t get a lot of that in the second half. Everything was kind of one-on-one, make something happen. And that’s why our percentages were low in the second half.”
Efficiency would be a synonym for that. Effective possession ratio is a good barometer for efficiency.
This statistic has a formula, which is possessions plus offensive rebounds minus turnovers, all divided by possessions, and an explanation: This measures how good a team is at actually getting scoring chances out of their possessions. Turning it over costs them a chance, while grabbing an offensive board gains them an extra one. Higher is better.
Arizona has a 0.956 effective possession ratio, or 104th in the country. It trails UCLA, Cal, Washington and Oregon State in the Pac-12.
But, more importantly, the rest of the schools in AP’s Top 10 significantly outrank the UA besides No. 8 Michigan State.
The other eight schools in AP’s Top 10 rank, on average, No. 35 in effective possession ratio.
Maybe stop settling for 3-pointers (looking at you, Mark Lyons and Grant Jerrett), and get to the basket. Draw the foul. Arizona is a good free throw shooting team, the best in the Pac-12.
Arizona doesn’t necessarily need to be the highest scoring team in the country, but a little bit of efficiency would suffice, especially against a zone defense.
Because, well, the best defense is a good offense.
“When you don’t get things rolling on the offensive end,” Hill said, “miss a couple easy ones, it takes you away from the game mentally. You get frustrated. You might look at the ref on a call instead of running back on defense. And that all has an effect.”