Arizona's season continues at an elite level after the victory over Stanford Wednesday night. With a 20-2 record and a first place standing in the Pac-12, the Arizona Wildcats have proven themselves to be one of the best teams in the nation.
If the season were to end today, there is no question Arizona is a second-seed lock and is competing for even better. Their resume is too good to be denied.
Despite the great start, Arizona does have glaring weaknesses that need to be addressed if they are to compete for a national title. This article considers the five most pressing.
Arizona is a top-25 defensive team based on efficiency. In opponent field goal percentage they are 47th. In points per game they are 67th. The Arizona Wildcats are a decent defensive team, but there is no reason they shouldn't be better.
They have all the athletes they need to be a premier defensive team. They have a defensive minded coach who wants to play great defense. They have leaders who pride themselves on the defensive side of the ball. They have great size and length. They should be better.
One reason they are not is because they don't play a full 35 second defensive set. Late in the shot clock, it is like they smell blood in the water and they are frenzied. Instincts kick in, they see red and attack.
In these situations the Wildcats over-extend, they reach, and defensive fundamentals are forgotten. They reach instead of providing a solid trap and the opposing player splits, or they don't hedge properly and the opposition is allowed an open three. Most common now is to allow the player with the ball to curl around the screen, and if done hard enough, there is a wide open path to the basket.
Time after time, Arizona will play 30 seconds of really solid defense and then break down in the last five. In the next six weeks Arizona needs to patch up some of these holes. If the Wildcats can do so, they will be even more of an imposing force during the Madness.
Sean Miller's calling card for his first few years in Tucson was defense of the three point ball. Two season ago the Arizona Wildcats were third in the nation in three point field-goal defense. Only 29.3 percent of their opponents threes went down. Last season was even lower, allowing only 28.5 percent and once again finishing third in the country. This year, allowing 34.9 percent to go down, Arizona ranks 241st in the country.
A lot of the great defense was due to the smaller players. That just makes sense that guys nearly seven feet tall can't get to the shooter as quick as MoMo Jones or Kyle Fogg.
But even with this reality being apparent, there are way too many open three-pointers. Time after time, the opposing team will find a guy without a hand in his face, and Arizona fans have to hold their breath as the ball sails towards the basket.
Players at the Pac-12 level are going to knock down open threes (unless they play for Washington). Arizona, somehow, needs to do a better job of getting a hand in the shooter's face regardless of their new-found size.
A lot of the time it doesn't look like it, but getting the ball to Kaleb Tarczewski makes Arizona a better team. Feeding the big guy on a consistent basis creates a continuity on the court that cannot be accomplished in any other way.
When he gets the ball, there is an instant mismatch in almost all cases. He is just too big for most players. His skill set is too high. So teams must double or foul. Opportunities are created for the other players. They have open shots, open lanes, and higher percentage field goals. Instantly, the offense operates more smoothly.
Arizona has an advantage when Tarczewski gets the ball in the right spots.
But there have been two issues with this.
First, Zeus doesn't do a good job of establishing his position before he touches the ball. He must use that big body to get to a space where he is comfortable and where he will be effective. But he struggles to do this. As a result, he is too often either too far away from the basket, or he is in an awkward position on the court (on the baseline 10 feet from the hoop).
Second, the team doesn't diligently look for him and if they do, they are not great post feeders. He may have established good position, but the team just can't get him the ball in the right spot at the precise time he should have it.
These factors lead to bad shots, turnovers, and it doesn't help his confidence either. It is why Tarczewski often doesn't look like the 4th rated recruit from a year ago. But he can perform at a higher level if they are able to adjust his positioning and the team's passing.
Come tournament time, having a seven footer is going to be huge. The Arizona Wildcats need to use this time to make sure Tarczewski is as effective as possible come March.
This is a no-brainer as the Arizona Wildcats biggest issue.
It has been no secret that the 2012-13 Arizona team has been infected by the turnover bug. They are 172nd in the nation in turnovers with 13.6 per game.
The Wildcats are too talented to be 172nd in the nation at anything, but this issue persists. The game at Washington was particularly egregious. In that game, the ball was turned over 17 times. This is an absolutely staggering number, especially so late in the season and against a mediocre at best basketball team.
While it may be false hope, the Wildcats looked like they might have turned a corner in the last two games. Against Washington State only nine turnovers were committed. And in Wednesday night's contest with the Stanford Cardinal, just 11. The reigns seemed to be tightened and the focus more apparent.
If Arizona wants to compete for a national title, this most recent trend must continue. The last two games must be the norm, must be habitual. To win come tournament time, this level of focus is required for victory. To think that the WIldcats get beyond the second round with 15 turnover outings is ridiculous.
The turnovers at the current 13.6 level must be reduced.
To be a national title contender, a team must be one of the most offensively efficient teams in the country. Although not sufficient, it is absolutely necessary to win it all. Currently the Arizona Wildcats rank 35th in the nation.
This isn't good enough.
Most recent champions have been in the top five nationally. So how does a team improve? Several factors listed above are part of the equation including turnovers and getting the ball to Zeus.
Arizona also needs to reduce its ill-advised shots. Sometimes Kevin Parrom starts to think he is Larry Bird and he takes a three pointer from 28 feet. At other points, Solomon Hill suffers from the same Bird delusion. While each is a serviceable three-point shooter, taking shots five feet beyond the three point stripe is never a good idea; a better shot is always available.
Another example of poor shot selection: Too many times players are running themselves into a one-on-three break. If this player is Nick Johnson, I am okay with it because he has shown he can finish, but beyond this, it is a bad shot. Patience needs to be exercised, the ball needs to be pulled out and offense needs to be run.
With that said, as the team plays more, the offensive efficiency will improve. Let us remember that four players who play starters minutes (Mark Lyons, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett) are new-comers. Hopefully as March draws nearer, the team gels and the offense gets smoother. If it does not, there is trouble ahead for the Wildcats.
As history has taught, a good offense trumps all else when the Madness begins. If Arizona cleans up a few small areas of difficulty, their offense will be just as good as it needs to be to win it all.