Lackluster defense had Arizona basketball skidding in Utah
For a moment in Salt Lake City, things looked to be in dire straits for the Arizona men’s basketball team. With a two-game losing streak already in tow, the Wildcats led by only three points with less than two minutes remaining.
Seniors Mark Lyons and Kevin Parrom eventually willed Arizona to a 68-64 victory at Utah, snapping the brief skid and seemingly restoring order to everything hoops-related in Tucson. But, even with the dark days of three-straight losses avoided, the Wildcats made something very clear as the season winds down.
If Arizona wants to do anything in the NCAA tournament, it will come down to its play on defensive. As boring as that sounds, the Wildcats need to play Big 10-style basketball if they want to go anywhere in March.
Here are some simple stats, and as obvious as they sound, they’re very telling: In Arizona’s 21 wins, it’s allowed roughly 60.6 points per game. That puts the Wildcats’ defensive prowess in the ballpark of Vanderbilt with the 47th best defense in the nation.
In a loss? The UA allows 75.5 points per game, which is the same amount Northern Arizona gives up on a nightly basis. The small sample size of just four losses does distort those figures somewhat, as Arizona is by no means the 329th worst defense in defeats. But, the Wildcats are a perfect 17-0 in games where the opposing team scores under 70 points.
The UA also rarely wins when opponents surpass the magical 70-point mark. Since the start of December, when the strength of schedule picked up, Arizona has only won twice when teams pass the 70 points threshold — the 92-83 OT victory against Colorado and an 80-70 win at Oregon State.
In all four losses, opponents have scored 70 points or more, with the two most recent losses (77-69 versus Cal and 71-58 at Colorado) being a direct result of poor defensive play. The Golden Bears shot an unworldly 58.8 percent from the field; the Buffaloes hit half of their shots and continued to exploit Arizona’s poor three-point defense, hitting 52.9 percent from deep.
Just let those numbers sink in.
Entering the Cal game, opponents were shooting 39.7 percent on the season.
Both the Golden Bears and Buffs shot more than 10 percent better from the floor and took advantage of the Wildcats 253rd-ranked three-point defense. They won.
On Sunday the Utes hit 39.6 percent of their attempts and low and behold, they lost to Arizona. It’s not too hard — defense is the Wildcats’ identity and it’s not changing.
Sure, the Wildcats are in the top-50 in offense, at least in terms of points per game. But as the team has said all season, their points will come. It doesn’t matter from where; it could be Lyons, Solomon Hill or any other of the talented scorers on the roster.
Arizona will get its points.
Defense is what separates the wins and losses. Well, defense and rebounding.
With 25 games down, it’s been made clear that none of the freshmen are going to break out as dominate scorers. Forward Brandon Ashley has showed the greatest offensive potential, such as Sunday afternoon when he scored 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting.
But, that’s about the limit of the freshman firepower. Only three times have any of the freshmen scored more than 15 points (Ashley twice, Grant Jerrett once). For what this team does, that’s OK. The seniors and Nick Johnson have more than enough talent to score.
Where the freshmen need to improve is in their play on the glass, and that hasn’t exactly been the case of late. Over the last three games, Arizona has out-rebounded its opponents by a total of eight rebounds, 88-80. Considering the UA has a top-25 rebounding margin (plus-7.1 rpg entering the Cal game), the young Wildcats have not been themselves around the hoop.
The freshman frontcourt has combined to grab a third (30 of 88) of the UA’s rebounds the past three games. Utah also had seven offensive boards and Colorado eight.
Defense and rebounding go hand in hand. During the two-game slide, both were absent. Arizona picked it up slightly against Utah, though the Utes 39-point second half almost made it a three-game slump.
The Wildcats’ win has them back on track. But without better defense moving forward, that track won’t be very long.