Championship teams effectively deal with setbacks and adversity.
When Arizona's Brandon Ashley recently went down with a season-ending foot injury, everything changed for the Wildcats. They were going to have to learn how to thrive without their most versatile player.
Not only was Ashley U of A's third-leading scorer and rebounder, he also gave them lineup flexibility. His ability to play multiple positions and score from different places on the court created matchup problems that were difficult for opponents to counteract.
Even before Ashley's exit, head coach Sean Miller's squad had been struggling to shoot the ball well and consistently score points.
The last time the 'Cats scored over 70 points was when they throttled rival Arizona State 91-68 back on January 16.
In its last five games, Arizona has put up 10 points less per game than it had been tallying in the first 18 games of the season.
More than simply being explained by playing in slower-paced games, its drop in offensive production is a direct result of a serious shooting slump:
|Arizona's Shooting Slump and Scoring Struggle|
|First 18 Games||49||37.9||67||75.7|
|Last 5 Games||39.5||25.7||64.1||64.4|
Who is most responsible for this decline? Does it fall on one person?
The answer is no one player bears the blame alone.
Over the last three games, leading scorer Nick Johnson is shooting 25.6 percent (10-of-39) from the field and has missed his last 10 shots from beyond the arc.
The Wildcats do not rely heavily on point guard T.J. McConnell's scoring, but their floor leader is having his troubles finding the range. Over the last five games, McConnell is hitting 37.2 percent (17-of-43) of his FG attempts, with only 26.3 percent (5-of-19) from three-point territory.
In his most recent five outings, freshman forward Aaron Gordon is only connecting on 31.4 percent (17-of-54) of shots from the floor, but he is really out of sync at the line (7-of-24; 29.1 percent). Gordon made only two of his 11 attempts from the charity stripe at home against Oregon. Brutal.
The team's shot distribution and selection has not changed hardly at all in this recent rough patch. The 'Cats do not launch many threes. They still only take 14.4 shots per game (No. 320 in the nation) from downtown. They are still going to the line around 24 times per game.
The truth is shots are not falling for the No. 2 team like they were previously.
Keep in mind Arizona is still winning ball games. Even in the middle of this five-game offensive drought, the Wildcats are 4-1.
But, with five of U of A's final games coming on the road, Miller needs to help his team pull out of this slump and get back to being the dominant team it has been for the first two-and-a-half months of the college basketball season.
What does it need to do?
Attack the Basket
One of the biggest strengths of this team is its ability to take the ball down low and put it in the hole.
Nick Johnson is a skilled slasher who has shown he has a nice pull-up game and can hit runners in the lane. His crazy hops help him get to the rim and finish in traffic. Since Johnson is a capable FT shooter (77.6 percent), when he gets in the lane, he also gets to the line frequently.
Aaron Gordon is lethal around the basket. Rather than setting up on the perimeter and looking for opportunities, the athletic freshman should flash the lane and find ways to throw down as many power jams as possible. Who cares if he never hits another shot outside of five feet from the basket while he is in Tucson?
New starter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a beast on the offensive glass. He not only does not try to avoid contact, at times, but it seems he looks for it. He finishes well at the rim. And has no trouble taking on bigger and longer opponents. In his first start in replacing the injured Ashley, RHJ scored 14 points and grabbed 10 boards.
Even though Arizona will see mostly zone defenses the rest of the season, the 'Cats need to get in and stay in attack mode to get back on track.
Feed "Zeus" More
U of A center Kaleb Tarczewski has pretty much been an offensive afterthought for most of the year. But as Miller reconfigures the 'Cats scoring scheme, he may strongly consider dumping it down to the seven-foot sophomore more often.
On the year, Zeus, surprisingly, is the team's shooting-percentage leader from the field (56 percent) and the line (82.3 percent).
In the last five games, he has knocked down 22-of-24 freebies, including 12-of-12 on the road at Cal.
I'm not suggesting everything needs to run through Tarczewski. However, increased touches that allow him to draw fouls, go to the line and hit more FTs sounds like a sound strategy for shaking the slump.
Find York Beyond the Arc
Arizona's distance-shooting deficiencies are well documented.
Its 14.4 three-point attempts per game puts it at No. 320 in the nation. The 'Cats' 25.9 three-point rate ranks No. 322.
In spite of this, sophomore guard Gabe York has established himself as U of A's beyond-the-arc specialist.
He leads the team (among the rotation players) in three-point shooting (41 percent). Even though Nick Johnson has played almost 300 more minutes than York so far in 2013-14, Johnson has only hit two more shots from downtown than the first guard off the bench.
Earlier this season, ESPN's Jeff Goodman listed (subscription required) York as an "X factor player for national title contenders" because of his three-point shooting accuracy.
York will no doubt be a recipient of some of Ashley's minutes. He will not only come in as a backcourt backup, but also as a third guard when Miller wants to play a little more up-tempo and insert more scoring punch from outside.
York is good at finding open spot-up locations. All McConnell and other Wildcats players need to do is find the Orange, CA native and he will take care of the rest.
This Arizona team is too talented and Sean Miller is too good of a coach to continue in this current offensive funk.
It still plays suffocating defense and is fierce on both boards.
As the players fully adjust to life without Brandon Ashley, they will leave this short-term offensive decline in the desert dust.
They will also return to being a dominant team that still is likely to make a deep run in this year's March Madness.
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