Arizona Basketball: 5 Keys to Peaking in the Postseason
The Arizona Wildcats (23-6, 11-6 Pac-12) are not fans of the city of Los Angeles.
Coach Sean Miller isn't too fond of the month of February either and he is hoping to make March an even better month for his Wildcat basketball team.
The 'Cats entered the month of February on a two-game winning streak with a record of 18-2, 6-2 Pac-12. They were ranked No. 8 team in the AP Poll and looked to be a lock for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tourney.
Arizona then went on to a 5-4 record over the next nine games and tumbled 10 spots in both polls and added a bad loss (to a team with 100+ RPI) to their resume against USC last Wednesday.
With one final regular season game and the Pac-12 Tournament yet to come, here are the things that the Wildcats need to do to peak in the postseason.
Dominate the Sun Devils at Home
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Nothing builds confidence and returns morale to high levels like a convincing victory.
The Wildcats' final home game and senior night will be on Saturday, March 9 at 4:30 p.m. EST. The natives are getting restless in Tucson and are desperate for a win over the state-rival Sun Devils.
This is the one home game that many Wildcat fans circle on their schedule as an easy victory as Arizona State has historically underperformed at McKale Center.
The Wildcats hold a 142-80 lifetime record over the Sun Devils including a 15-7 record over the past decade. When it comes to games played at McKale Center, Arizona State has only walked away with the W five times in the past 30 years which included a double-overtime victory in 1995.
Sun Devil head coach Herb Sendek has won three times in Tucson in his career as coach at Arizona State.
The Wildcats embarrassed the Sun Devils at home earlier in the year holding them to their lowest point total of the year with an impressive defensive showing.
Win at Least 2 Games in the Pac-12 Tournament
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Looking ahead at the final week of regular season play, I am projecting that the Wildcats secure the No. 4 seed going into a bye on the first day of play in the tournament.
The team that will most likely gain the No. 5 seed is the team they least want to see in the second round—the Colorado Buffaloes. The Buffs have all but beat the Wildcats in their past three meetings, save for the controversial three-point shot that was called off in Tucson on Jan. 3.
If the 'Cats can get past Colorado in Las Vegas, they would most likely play Oregon, the projected No. 1 seed that will play the winner of the No. 8 and No. 9 seed in the second round.
All it will take for Arizona to get to the Conference Championship is to win two games. A conference tournament championship will do wonders for their seeding in the NCAA tourney.
Bench Needs to Prove Its Worth
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It is easy to say that all the Wildcats need to do is win, but it's even harder to describe how they need to win. It was evident on their past road trip that their starters were exhausted due to lack of performance from their bench.
In the game against USC, freshman Brandon Ashley played 19 minutes and scored two points on 1-of-3 shooting, he also had two turnovers. Grant Jerrett played 22 minutes and shot a solid 50-percent from the field. However, Jordin Mayes, Angelo Chol and Gabe York all recorded minutes with only three points combined.
The UCLA game wasn't any better, save for the monstrous effort of Grant Jerrett who knocked in 14 points in 24 minutes on 4-of-5 shooting—all from beyond the arc. Mayes, Chol and Ashley combined for eight points on 3-of-8 shooting.
The bench has under-performed most of the year, and whenever Miller gives his starters a rest, he most always regrets it and pulls his bench players with players that are less-than-fresh.
Defense Needs to Return
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Kaleb Tarczewski had a great defensive game against UCLA with 10 boards and two blocks while Solomon Hill had five steals against USC. Still, they gave up 74 and 89 points in consecutive games when they have kept their opponents on average at 62.3 points per contest.
They are seventh overall in the Pac-12 in rebounds per game, 100th overall. They also rank seventh in blocks in the conference with just under four per game.
Zeus only averages 5.8 rebounds per game, good enough for No. 23 in the conference and Grant Jerrett's .93 blocks per game is No. 17 in the Pac-12.
Nick Johnson's 1.97 steals per game is good enough for fourth-best in the conference and is the Wildcats' shining star on defense.
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I have said it time and again, Mark Lyons is clutch.
He leads the team in scoring with 15.1 points per game, he leads the team in field goal percentage with 85-percent and if the game was on the line, he would be the go-to guy—on every occasion.
However, the game isn't comprised solely of the two-minute offense and Lyons needs to work on moving the ball around and spreading the love to his teammates.
The point guard is the court general, calling the plays and leading the team by assisting as much as shooting. Nick Johnson, the shooting guard, not Mark Lyons leads the team in assists—odd.
For more evidence, look no further than UCLA's point guard Larry Drew II. He leads the conference in assists by a large margin and ranks No. 4 in the nation with 7.8 assists per game. The Bruins are 12-4 in conference and sitting atop the Pac-12 with Oregon.
Although the Wildcats average the second-most points per game in the Pac-12, they are in the bottom half of the conference when it comes to assists.
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In order to avoid their fourth first-round loss in their last eight appearances, the Wildcats need to be on their game.
They can't afford another slow start that has become their trademark as of late. They are looking to be in the "upset zone" when it comes to NCAA Tournament as the No. 11-13 seeds always seem to put up big wins.
If Miller can bring his team together and compete as a team with consistent defense, good ball movement and solid bench play, the 'Cats will reach their fourth Elite Eight in the past ten years and maybe, just maybe, return to the National Championship Game that has eluded them since 2001.
1997 seems like forever ago and McKale needs another banner.