Arizona basketball is actually playing the best it has in several months. While it has lost several games and looks like the team is limping into the tournament, there is reason for hope.
The freshmen are playing great. Nick Johnson is starting to get back into his rhythm. Bench production is up, and the Wildcats are playing better on both sides of the ball.
There are negatives, however. Sloppy play plagues this team as it has all season. Its point guard's play has regressed, and wins are not coming as easily as they once were.
As the NCAA tournament starts and a No. 6 seed was awarded, this blueprint provides the vital areas for success in the coming weeks. Let the madness begin.
The hardest part is getting started—true in so may areas of life and true with the NCAA tournament. And with the tough first round defeats Arizona basketball has experienced, it is most true for the Wildcats. The Wildcats start with the Belmont Bruins.
Belmont is a good team. The Bruins are 26-6, won their conference tournament, beat Stanford on the road earlier in the season, played in the NCAA tournament last season and are led by three seniors and a junior.
Belmont scores a lot, averaging more than 77 points a game. The Bruins shoot a high percentage on their threes—they are 18th in the nation when firing beyond the arc.
Ian Clark is a senior guard who is a great scorer. It will be Nick Johnson's task to slow him down, and with the slate of two-guards he has faced all season, this is probable.
Belmont's weakness is its size. Of the guys that play significant minutes, the tallest is 6'7''. The three best rebounders on the team are 6'7''.
This is Arizona's biggest advantage. Five of Arizona's first seven guys are as tall or taller than Belmont's tallest player. Arizona needs to be patient and use the size and athleticism to its advantage. If it can, Belmont should not be a difficult hurdle to pass.
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 are sloppy on both ends of the floor. On the offensive end, turnovers give the team more opportunities and therefore more shots. But the real problem is defensive sloppiness.
Miller's pack-line defense is based on intense ball pressure, but it also must be conservative enough not to all easy penetration. Mark Lyons is the most guilty, but he over pressures and the ball-handler gets by him with a direct line to the "pack." This isn't how this defense is made to work. Lyons, and the other on-ball defenders need to do a better job of leveling out penetration.
Also, taking risks is unnecessary and works against the philosophy of the defense. When you reach and miss, the whole defense breaks down. Playing intense but thoughtful defense is the key. Hopefully Miller tries to make this adjustment. If not Arizona will have a second round exit at best.
The biggest problem for the Wildcats this season has been turnovers. Bill Walton pounded Arizona for its carelessness with the basketball during the UCLA game, and he was exactly right.
Time and time again, bad passes are thrown, silly decisions are made, and thinking is left to the opponent. UCLA didn't look like the better team or the tougher team—they were just the smarter team.
Arizona needs to be smarter. The seniors need to step up instead of leading the team in turnovers and bad shots. Nick Johnson needs to pick his spots better instead of crashing blindly into a sea of the other team. Every member of the team needs to do a little more thinking on the court.
If the total was just reduced by three turnovers a game, it would make a huge difference. Three extra possessions in a tight game will be the difference between a win and a loss. It sure would have against UCLA.
This could probably be added to the end of the turnovers discussion, but it hits on different points. When you watch great basketball teams and players, they all have an ability to impact a game which you can't grasp with numbers.
All basketball fans have heard the phrase "a quiet (number) points." Great players do the opposite. Great players make their baskets heard. When their team is down and on the brink of being put away, a great player steps in and changes the momentum. Intuitively he knows the game is about to shift, and he stops it. This was Jordan's greatest skill; Kobe is the same way.
In the opposite direction, a great player or team can understand when and how to end a game. Arizona as a team and the individual players have not shown an ability to feel the momentum.
Halfway through the second half against UCLA, Arizona was up 11 points. They defended well, stopped the Bruins and started up the court the other way. This was one of the "put the game away" moments.
But Nick Johnson ran into three Bruins' players, and the ball was lost. On the very next possession, good defense was played and the Wildcats got another stop. They forced again and the ball was lost.
The NCAA tournament is full of teams that have battled all year. If the Wildcats get up, they need to have the poise to understand the momentum shifts and take advantage of them. Otherwise, it will be UCLA all over again.
Over the last few weeks, the freshman bigs have played their best basketball of the season. Tarczewski is starting to blossom and is a force on the inside both offensively and defensively. Jerrett's shot is starting to go down, and his confidence is soaring. Brandon Ashley seems to be in the right place at the right time on a consistent basis, and his shot looks great as well.
As a unit they have become very consistent and vitally important. In the NCAA tourney, this will be huge. Size is always at a premium, and if the bigs are on the court, no team in the nation can match up. To stay on the court, they need to play well, which is why the past few games have been so encouraging.
If the current trend continues with all three playing well, Arizona will be a difficult out.
These three must be the biggest part of a championship. And each has a different role to play.
Mark Lyons needs to cut down on bad plays. It has been the same turnover song all year with him, but he needs to adjust. If the Wildcats are even thinking about winning it all, Lyons needs to understand this is his biggest shortcoming and change it. Miller needs to make him.
Johnson needs to continue to be aggressive. He needs to play without hesitation. When he is tense, he is not a good player and is actually a liability. When he plays hard and aggressive, while playing smart, he can be a great player and lead the team deep into March.
Solomon Hill should follow the same formula as Johnson. He needs to be nothing but aggressive. When he is, the whole team is better. When he is taking the ball to the hole, he is great and is difficult to stop.
In the end, Lyons needs to take fewer shots and lose the ball less. The possessions saved should go to the two best scorers on the team, Johnson and Hill.
If Arizona can make these adjustments, a deep run is possible, and the potential seen at the beginning of the year can still be fulfilled.