Arizona looked like an average team for the first 20 minutes on Saturday and one of the best teams in college basketball over the last 20 minutes of the game.
The Round of 32 win over Ohio State may have been much closer than the 73-58 final score showed, but it came from an Arizona team not playing at its best. The Wildcats struggled for long portions of time to get consistently good looks against Ohio State’s matchup zone and went through a few scoring droughts.
In the end the Wildcats proved too deep and too big for an Ohio State team much smaller than some of the talented OSU teams of the past decade. Arizona out-rebounded the Buckeyes 43-26, won the points in the paint battle 30-22 and controlled the second chance point fight 20-7.
It was a tale of two halves that highlighted everything Arizona does right and wrong.
There will be times where the Wildcats look like world-beaters with their depth and frontcourt prowess. There will also be times where Arizona struggles to score in the half court, particularly against a zone defense.
That’s just the way the ball rolls sometimes.
However, looking forward to potential matchups with Wisconsin and Kentucky, Arizona can’t afford to have one strong half and one weak half like that again. Top competition could be too much to overcome if that happens, putting pressure on Arizona to play one-on-one instead of as a team.
Arizona has gotten to 33-3 by playing as a team and really struggles when it gets away from that. Just look at the team’s three losses this year— each one showed large stretches where players like Stanley Johnson, T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had to look for their own shot instead of scoring through the team offense.
The Wildcats are averaging 77 points per game on the season but put up just 67 points per game in their three losses. Not to mention in all but the UNLV loss, Arizona was below its average of 14 assists per game as a team.
Arizona coach Sean Miller has built the majority of his Arizona teams on teamwork and continuity, and this year’s team is no different. The Wildcats are at their best when they play like they did in the second half against Ohio State on Saturday.
Gabe York was hitting 3-pointers at a ridiculous rate off picture perfect passes from his teammate; McConnell was slicing and dicing his way into the paint for both scores and assists; Hollis-Jefferson was doing all the dirty things like offensive rebound and dive on the floor, and the rest of the team chipped in with rebounds, timely shots and solid defense.
Like most teams Arizona has faced this season, Ohio State had no answer for everything Arizona threw at them.
While I can say with certainty Arizona has to continue that level of play, especially with Wisconsin and Kentucky looming, there’s no doubt in my mind Miller is telling his guys to focus solely on Xavier and the Sweet 16.
Rightfully so, as overlooking opponents is what sends a team home in March. But, you know what keeps a team alive? Playing as one unit. And that’s what Arizona has to continue to do in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
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