Last Thursday night the UCLA Bruins marched into Tucson for the first premier game of the Pac-12 season. The Bruins were playing some of their best basketball, winning 10 of their previous 11. The Arizona Wildcats, at 16-1 and ranked No. 6 in the nation, had been dominant all year long.
The game was a disappointment for basketball fans. UCLA manhandled Arizona from the opening tip. The Wildcats looked outmatched and intimidated. Before anyone had time to look up at the scoreboard, UCLA was up 19-3. Arizona was flat and unmotivated.
Most disconcerting of all was the offensive side of the ball. Arizona was disjointed, awkward and just plain awful. While they ended up scoring 73 points, they shot .38 percent from the field and 5-24 from three point range. They had 14 turnovers and their highly touted freshman combined for 14 points. Tarczewski didn't score a single point.
While it is easy to say that the team had a bad game, which they undoubtedly did, the offense has been suspect in most of the big games this season. It has been their defense that has come through when they have pulled out tough wins, and also the defense that has kept them close in the losses.
With expectations set so high, where the cross-hairs are aimed at a Final Four and national title, the question becomes, do the Wildcats have the scoring necessary to make a deep run in March?
A good starting point is to look at the champions of the modern past. While the saying goes, “defense wins championships,” in college basketball it is the other side of the ball that puts a team over the top. There may be no greater tool for evaluation of a possible champion than the offensive efficiency rating.
In the last 15 years, only four times has the champion had an offensive rating outside the top-15. And in the last nine years, offense has been even more at a premium. Since 2004, the champion’s national rating has been 14th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 45th, and 4th. The 14th and 45th were the Connecticut champions (Jim Calhoun seems to be the only coach who can win without a great offense).
Of those teams that weren’t great, they had incredible and transcendent players. The 2003 Syracuse team (30th in offensive rating) had Carmelo Anthony, The 1999 Connecticut Huskies (19th) had the great Richard Hamilton leading the way. The 2011 Connecticut Huskies finished 45th in offensive rating but Kemba Walker played out of his mind while singlehandedly willing his team to the championship.
This year’s Arizona team is a good offensive team, but like the UCLA game displayed, they have their trouble. Currently Arizona is 21st in the country in offensive efficiency with a rating of 1.080. Only the three UConn teams and the 1998 Kentucky anomaly have worse ratings in the past 15 years.
Also, the Wildcats do not have a player of transcendence to get them through the bumpy periods of offensive drudgery. Mark Lyons has been solid and clutch. He has stepped up when it is needed and won several games by himself. Nick Johnson has been good. Solomon Hill continues to play well.
Yet none of these players are the caliber of those that got their mediocre offensive team to the championship. Richard Hamilton averaged 21.5 PPG and was a First Team All-American, Kemba Walker averaged 23.5 PPG and was First Team All-American, and Carmelo Anthony is a once in a generation player.
Derrick Williams, who would be a senior this year, was this type of player. But like Rick Pitino would say, Derrick Williams is not walking through that door. Although he may want to be back in college instead of floundering in Minnesota, he has moved on. And while the Wildcats have lots of good scoring options, they cannot rely on one stud player to get them over the top.
If the Cats want to compete at the championship level, they need to play better offense. And by better offense, that doesn’t mean drastically better, or even significantly better, it means moderately better. It means moving from 21st in the country into the top seven or eight. This can be done.
Step one in that equation is cutting down on the turnovers. Currently the Cats are 174th in the country. With their elite talent, this just doesn’t make sense. They average nearly 14 turnovers per contest. Moving this stat closer to 10 would give them four more shots a game and probably two more field goals made. This pushes the efficiency rating closer to a championship level.
Step two is feeding the post. Although Tarczewski can be bumbling and goofy at times, when he is patient and collects himself, the game opens up for both Zeus and the team. Tellingly, in Arizona's two losses, Tarczewski is averaging only two points and four field goal attempts. If Arizona was diligent about getting him the ball in the post two or three times more per contest, the Wildcats are instantly more efficient.
The third step is maturation. The team is young with three wide-eyed freshman playing starters minutes. As the Pac-12 season moves on, these guys need to settle into their roles so the team can continue to mesh. If this happens, the offense should improve.
If the tournament started today, Arizona would not be in the national title discussion based on how they have played offensively. But if they can improve moderately and steadily as the season marches forward, moving into the top seven or eight in the highly important offensive efficiency category, they will be a real threat to cut down the Georgia Dome nets.