As head coach Sean Miller stressed early this season, defense is going to be what carries the Wildcats far into next year’s NCAA tournament in March. In the seven games of the season prior to the Wildcats’ 79-58 victory over Texas Tech on Tuesday, Arizona had emerged with stellar post defense and limited opponents to a 37.9 percent field goal percentage from within the perimeter. The Wildcats have additionally averaged a Pac-12 leading 6.7 blocks per game a season after averaging 3.8 per contest.
While originally expecting large defensive contributions from starting big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, Arizona has been forced to seek clutch defense from other sources, as Ashley has struggled with committing body fouls and Tarczewski continues to be outrebounded by players four inches shorter than him.
Instead, when thinking of Arizona’s recent defensive success this season, junior guards Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell and freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson immediately come to mind. Both McConnell and Johnson have long been considered serious defensive threats. McConnell was in the top three in the country in steals as a part of Duquesne’s team before transferring to Arizona. Over his first eight games this year, the Pittsburgh native put up a team-leading 12 steals.
Johnson, while he still needs to learn to stay on his feet, has taken up a leadership role on the team and is a standout blocker. The Gilbert, Ariz., native has combined for eight blocks and five steals to start off the year.
Hollis-Jefferson is known for his tenacious fire, hustle and tough East Coast attitude on the court. With his 7-foot-2 wingspan, Hollis-Jefferson can tip passes and guard his man to the point of putting pressure on him to get rid of the ball. As soon as the ball hits the floor, he’s diving and fighting for it.
Sophomore guard Gabe York is also expected to affect the Wildcats’ defense. Last year, it was defense that kept York sidelined on the bench, but this year, defensive improvement will get him more minutes. While York may be considered the most improved defensive player on the team this year, he still has a long way to go.
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