Arizona Basketball: Biggest Improvements Wildcats Have Made in 2013-14

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistDecember 13, 2013

Arizona Basketball: Biggest Improvements Wildcats Have Made in 2013-14

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    Arizona has started 10-0 for the second straight season, a first in the storied program's illustrious history. And the Wildcats have done so against a fairly strong level of nonconference competition, with wins over Duke, UNLV and San Diego State.

    Heading into Saturday's challenge at Michigan, the Wildcats are playing at a level unseen in Tucson in a decade, dating back to the last time they were ranked No. 1.

    Though this is back-to-back 10-0 starts, there are some differences (i.e., improvements) between last season and the current one that illustrate the 2013-14 Wildcats should go much further than the Sweet 16 appearance of a year ago.

Passing the Rock

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    For the first time since Sean Miller came to Arizona in 2008, the Wildcats have a true point guard. And by that we mean, a guard at the 1-spot that looks to pass as much—if not more than—as shoot.

    Last season Arizona was forced to use senior Mark Lyons at the point, because there were no other options. And while Lyons' scoring ability and aggressive late-game play were helpful, his inability to create offense for teammates (and to hold onto the ball) proved costly over and over again.

    But this year, with junior T.J. McConnell eligible after sitting out a year following his transfer from Duquesne, Arizona is one of the most effective passing teams in the country. McConnell has 67 assists in 10 games, which would tie for fourth on the 2012-13 Wildcats' team for its season tallies. Lyons had 112 assists in 35 games last year.

    But it's not just McConnell who's doing it. Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and reserves Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York are all averaging more than an assist per game, and as a team the Wildcats are in the top 40 nationally with 15.9 dimes per contest. 

Finding a Role for Brandon Ashley

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    With his amazing length and long, fast stride, Brandon Ashley has the body to play so many positions. But the sophomore needs to be in just one role to truly tap into his skills and abilities, and Arizona seems to have finally found it.

    With Aaron Gordon filling a post role alongside 7'0" Kaleb Tarczewski, Ashley is able to float along and just inside the perimeter looking for opportunities to spot up or, when it's there, drive to the basket. The result is Ashley taking nothing but good shots, instead of the first one available.

    Ashley is shooting 61 percent from the field, and is second on the team in scoring at 12.3 points per game. He shot 52.5 percent as a freshman but only took (and made all) three three-pointers. He's 7-of-12 this season, while his 18-footers are going down at nearly a 60 percent clip.

Controlling the Boards

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    Arizona's front line is roughly the same size as it was last season, with Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson replacing Grant Jerrett and Solomon Hill in terms of size and rebounding ability.

    Yet this year's Wildcats team is pulling down five more rebounds per game, and has a rebounding advantage of plus-14 this season as opposed to plus-six a year ago.

    The reason? Instead of last year's rebounding approach, which seemed to be more of a "whoever is near the ball should try to rebound it" strategy has morphed into a dedicated attack of the boards. Gordon is leading this charge, making up for his hot-and-cold (mostly cold of late) shooting by pulling down 8.5 rebounds per game.

    And his aggressiveness on the glass has sparked Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski to follow suit. Throw in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson off the bench, and the Wildcats have four players who are collecting more than two offensive rebounds per game.

Taking Better Shots

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    The previous slides have shown how Arizona has improved with its passing, rebounding and role adherence. All of that has translated into maybe the most important improvement for the Wildcats from last season to this season: better shooting.

    Sure, it's only 10 games into the year, but Arizona is shooting 50.2 percent from the field. Take out the impressive 37.7 percent from three-point range, and the Wildcats are making 54.8 percent of their shots from inside the arc.

    In 2012-13, Arizona shot 37.1 percent from three-point land but only 50.6 percent on two-pointers.

    This improvement is there because, with a better passing game, the right player is getting the ball at the right (read: he's open) time. Players aren't settling for one-on-one situations and just trying to beat their man. And when shots are missed, the boards are being crashed, setting up putbacks or kicking it out for an open guy on the perimeter.