Arizona Basketball: Ranking Sean Miller's Biggest Worries This Season
So the Arizona Wildcats lost a game. Big deal. So they dropped to seventh in the rankings. Big deal.
In the end the Wildcats are way ahead of schedule. To be 15-1 and ranked seventh while having so many young players is an incredible way to start the season. This year will be more about how the team is able to mature than about how it was born.
With this fantastic start under its belt, Sean Miller still has issues and concerns. This list reviews several of the most glaring of these problems.
Defending the Three
Two years ago Arizona was third in the nation in three point field-goal defense, holding the opponent to 29.3 percent from beyond the arc. Last year, the Arizona Wildcats were third in the nation again, allowing only 28.5 percent. This year Arizona ranks 298th in the country. Now, more than 37 percent of opponent's three point shots are made.
Some of this change is understandable. For the past several years the Wildcats have been playing small ball. The center on last year's team was 6'7''. Quicker players were on the court which meant a hand in the face of many more shooters. This year Arizona plays much bigger and as the court spreads, there will be more open shots.
Yet, this doesn't account for a drop from third to 298th.
Sean Miller blames the slip in three-point defense on fatigue and plans to play his reserves more.
I think it is more than this. The team's sloppiness plays a role as well. Arizona plays good defense from 35 to 10 on the shot clock. Then things break down. They go away from the defensive principles and take too many risks.
For example, while the bigs hedge and the guards are fighting through the screen, the bigs don't close out. Instead they move towards the basket, leaving the ball handler with lots of space to step up. As a result many shooters have been left wide open. A wide open shooter at the college level is going to shoot at a high level. And so far this year they have.
Moving forward the issues will improve, but, if not, many games that should not be in doubt with be close. Several games which should be won will not be.
The beat goes on for Arizona and its turnovers.
14 turnovers in a loss against Oregon. 16 turnovers in a win over Oregon State. The Arizona Wildcats now have 226 turnovers on the year which ranks them 10th in the Pac-12. It has been an issue all season and in the game against Southern Miss, Arizona had an eye-popping 27 turns.
Against the likes of Southern Miss, Arizona can get away with sloppy play and still come out with a victory. But in a league where there are now several good teams, giving the ball away will translate into giving wins away. Arizona is really good and has incredible talent, but each time the ball is turned over that talent is minimized and the competition gets one possession closer to a victory.
The interesting thing about Arizona's turnover woes is that against the best defenses Arizona has protected the ball well. Pitted against Florida, one of the most stifling defenses in the country, the Wildcats only had 10 turnovers. Against San Diego State, another great defense and top-20 team, only eight.
It seems that when the Wildcats know they are in for a challenge, they play tighter more focused basketball. When they know the talent gap is wide, like in most games this season, their play is sloppy.
This theory will be tested this week with the ASU and UCLA games, but it may be the silver lining in the turnover issue. As the season progresses, the Wildcats will realize they are not that much better than many of the teams, and hopefully the play will be more focused.
Adding to this is that a good number of the turnovers come from the freshman. As they mature, they will grow in confidence and along with it will come a reduction in one of the Wildcats biggest ailments.
Progression of Pac-12
Last season the Pac-12 was terrible. Plain and simple. Not a single team was ranked to finish the season, and if there wasn't an automatic qualifier, no team would have made the tournament. The conference as a whole did not register a non-conference win over a top-25 team. It was painful to watch at points.
This season is different. There have been several top-25 wins (#5 Florida, #7 Missouri, #16 Baylor, #17 San Diego State, #18 UNLV), and it looks as though at least four, if not five teams will make the tournament.
Oregon, despite being ranked at No. 21, is a legit top-15 team. They have all the makings of a very solid team down the stretch and will be in the hunt with Arizona until the end. UCLA, while still being penalized (in the rankings) for their early season loss to the Mustangs of Cal Poly, have won nine in a row. The UCLA Bruins are also a bona fide top-15 team and have a higher ceiling than the Oregon Ducks.
Add in Arizona State, which now looks like a dangerous team after starting the Pac-12 season 3-1. The ASU Sun Devils are playing a fast-paced style of ball and have performed better than the Arizona Wildcats through the first four games of the conference season. The two games Arizona plays against their rival from Tempe will be hard fought and close. An ASU victory seems reasonable this season.
Colorado, stunned by the trip to Arizona and its 1-3 start, should bounce back as well. The Colorado Buffs are a team which beat a top-20 Baylor team, should have beat a third ranked Arizona team, and played well against a UCLA team playing its best basketball. Once Colorado gets back on track, they will be playing in the NCAA tourney as well. The game in Boulder is going to be one where the Buffaloes are out for blood after their victory was stolen in Tucson.
A far cry from last year's Pacific 12 Conference, the vast improvement of several Pac-12 teams means a more difficult path to the Pac-12 title for Sean Miller and his Cats.
The freshman big three have played well in moments this season. The most consistent has been Brandon Ashley, who has scored in double figures seven times and has two double-doubles.Yet Ashley seems to stagnate at times as well. There have been six games where he has scored three points or less. A little consistency would go a long way in the close games to come.
Grant Jerrett can be a big x-factor for the Arizona Wildcats. His versatility on both ends of the floor is a rarity for most college programs. He shoots 40 percent from three but then can do things like block six shots in a single game as he did against Oregon State.But Jerrett defers too much. He needs to be more aggressive on both sides of the ball. He seemed to do this in the Oregon State game. If he can continue along this line, he makes the Wildcats much better.
Kaleb Tarczewski is the team's best rebounder and does impact the defensive side of the ball. But his offense has been slow developing. Nearly every time he gets the ball, he seems to be nervous, like the ball is a hot potato that he needs to get rid of. He either shoots to fast or makes a bad pass. In his last game, he had five turnovers and only got off three shots. Zeus needs to develop a quick go-to move and trust in his ability. This will happen in time, but the sooner the better for the Wildcats.
Arizona is talented enough to win the Pac-12 even if the freshman aren't great. The team can compete with and beat any other in the league on the shoulders of Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, and moderate play from the supporting cast.
However, the road to the Final Four will be paved with the freshman bigs. If they can get to the next level, so will the team as a whole. And the next level for a 15-1 team is a National Championship.