Why the 2019-20 Arizona men's basketball team is better than previous years
In the first round of the Wooden Legacy tournament, the Arizona men's basketball defeated Long Beach State 104-67. The Wildcats will travel to California and will take on Pepperdine University.
Arizona men’s basketball has started its 2019-20 season undefeated, going 9-0 in the first month of the season. The squad has had a similar start as last year’s team, who also began the year 6-0, and the 2017-18 team that went 5-1 in its first six contests. The resemblance between the past teams can make this season’s performance feel not unusual for Arizona basketball.
However, this year’s team has displayed several key factors that the previous teams lacked. Here’s why this year’s men’s basketball team is capable of escaping the dark postseason cloud that has hovered over the Wildcats in the last decade.
One of the many things that separates this team from the bunch is its ability to play high-level defense. It’s a quality that Head Coach Sean Miller stresses in his team every year but is not often executed to his liking. This year’s team is much different compared to Arizona team that ranked No. 91 in defensive efficiency last season.
While you can point to the Wildcats having a soft schedule to begin the year, Arizona held Illinois to 69 points and 31% shooting from the three-point line on Nov. 10. Illinois is a talented team with legitimate NBA talent, so keeping them in check was certainly a statement performance for Arizona’s defense.
We all remember the 2017-18 squad that went 27-8 and won the Pac-12 championship with ease. The team was showcased by the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Deandre Ayton, and the now-New York Knicks’ guard Allonzo Trier. Arizona ranked No. 12 in the country in offensive efficiency that year. So why did that dominant squad get bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament? The Achilles’ heel to that team was its overall ability to play defense. Arizona ranked No. 158 in defensive efficiency that year, proving that being successful in the postseason is only possible with a good defense.
Dominating on the defensive side of the ball isn’t the only thing that the Wildcats have been doing well this season. Miller made it an emphasis in the off-season to bring elite shooters to the team when he assembled this year’s roster, and rightly so. Arizona shot an underwhelming 34% from beyond the arc last season, ranking No. 9 in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage.
Those shooting woes have proven to be a thing of the past, as the Wildcats have knocked down 72 three-pointers this season, shooting 42% as a team despite the three-point line being moved further back at the beginning of the season. Six of Arizona’s players are shooting above 38% from beyond the arc, including transfer Jemarl Baker Jr., who leads the team at 50%, and freshman Nico Mannion, who has drained 16 of his 37 three-point attempts (43%) so far.
The lack of reliable and consistent players was one of the key reasons why Arizona failed to make the NCAA tournament last season. Injuries to Chase Jeter and Brandon Williams, along with the departure of Emmanuel Akot in the middle of the season, derailed the season and diminished Arizona’s depth. The team got blown out by USC and UCLA without Jeter and then proceeded to drop the next five games when Williams went down with a knee injury. The Wildcats were forced to lean on some of its other players that simply were not ready for such a big role.
This season is much different, with Arizona already showing off how deep they are at each position. The Wildcats are still capable of running a 10-man rotation even after suffering a season-ending knee injury to Brandon Williams and the dismissal of sophomore Devonaire Doutrive just a few weeks ago. Players like Max Hazzard and Jemarl Baker Jr. have kept the second unit together with their dependability early on. Baker has put up 26 assists while only turning the ball over three times this season, while Hazzard holds the fourth-highest field goal percentage on the team. Arizona possesses several bench players that can score and produce when needed, something that was nonexistent last year.
Winning a championship and being successful in March takes more than just pure basketball skills. Regardless, the Arizona Wildcats are equipped with the talent to win a lot of games and are certainly in line to exceed the accomplishments achieved by the previous teams.
Follow Jacob Mennuti on Twitter