Arizona is a different team today than it was at the beginning of February.
The Wildcats started off the 2013-14 season by winning a school-record 21 games. They had been the No. 1 team in the country since Week 6 (Dec. 9).
And then, two minutes into its road game against Cal (on Feb. 1), Arizona lost versatile and valuable forward Brandon Ashley with a season-ending foot injury.
ESPN's Eamonn Brennan stated that Ashley "did something no other Arizona big man could: He made jumpers, and thus spaced the floor, without losing any of the interior productivity in the exchange."
Replacing his productivity and function on this team was no easy matter. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, at the time of his injury, Ashley was "the team leader in 2-point jumpers - 2nd on the team in baskets at the rim - 2nd on the team in scoring - 2nd on the team in offensive putbacks - 2nd on the team in FG pct - 4th on the team in blocks."
The Cats had no choice but to reinvent themselves on the fly. They had to quickly morph into a new edition of their team in the middle of the Pac-12 season.
Three weeks have passed, and Miller is remaking his squad so that it can finish business in the conference regular-season race, the conference tournament and in March Madness.
Let's see what this reshaping and reformatting looks like.
Still a Defense-First Team, But...
The Wildcats are athletic and aggressive. They play well as a unit. They are simply one of the best shutdown teams in the country.
Miller has recruited players who have the skills and the right mindset to be a squad that prides itself on being dialed in on every defensive possession.
With Ashley in the lineup, the Wildcats were a frightening force that controlled opponents, at times, with their sheer size, rarely allowing them to have a decent look.
On the season, Arizona is No. 1 in the nation in opponents' effective field-goal percentage (42.2 percent), No. 3 in opponents' two-point percentage (41 percent) and No. 5 in scoring defense (57.7 PPG; h/t TeamRankings.com).
Since Ashley's unfortunate departure, U of A does not intimidate teams nearly as much with its length, but it is getting even more menacing on the perimeter.
In the last three games, the Cats have held Arizona State, Utah and Colorado to a combined 12-of-41 (29 percent) from beyond the arc.
B/R's Javier Morales pointed out on Twitter how scary the Cats were in Boulder:
As good as #ArizonaWildcats were offensively, they were better defensively. CU had no fastbreak points. None. Shot 32.7% FG. Only 2-10 3ptrs— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) February 23, 2014
As a part of Arizona's makeover, freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has had a chance to further step up on the defensive end. RHJ can defend multiple positions, and he brings a gritty determination onto the court whether he is starting or coming off the bench.
Salt Lake Tribune's Tony Jones recently remarked:
That makes a huge difference. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson may be a freshman, but he is already one of the best defender's in the league— Tony Jones (@Tjonessltrib) February 20, 2014
Arizona's menacing defense is not a passing fad or an emerging trend. It is a priority in Miller's coaching philosophy, and this Wildcats team has bought in 100 percent.
As they finish the regular season and move toward the Pac-12 tournament, look for the Wildcats to upset their opponents' offensive flow even more.
Moving Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson Around
With Ashley's exit, Miller had to determine his best lineup combinations moving forward.
If he wanted to go big, he could put Tarczewski, Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson on the floor together. If he wanted a unit that could spread the floor and hit shots from the perimeter, he could go with three guards and rotate his frontcourt trio.
So far, the Cats are using both effectively.
Gordon continues to be best utilized by slashing to the basket or by being on the receiving end of a mind-blowing alley-oop.
He had his best collegiate game against Colorado, scoring 23 points and eight rebounds.
In the last five games, the high-flying freshman has shot 62 percent (26-of-42) from the field. Unfortunately, Gordon has continued to struggle from the free-throw line, only connecting on a tragic 26 percent of his freebies (7-of-26).
In the last five games, Hollis-Jefferson has played nearly 31 minutes per game, even though he has only started three times and was limited to 15 minutes against Colorado because of foul trouble.
Working in and around the basket, RHJ has averaged 11.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
Having these athletic forwards play together or in rotation will make life miserable for Arizona's opponents.
From Facilitator to Scoring Threat
Arizona's floor leader T.J. McConnell has been the consummate pass-first point guard from the moment he stepped onto the court this season after transferring from Duquesne. He leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.9 A/TO) for players who average at least 2.3 assists per game.
He has been masterful in distributing the ball and keeping everyone in the flow of the Wildcats' attack. Even his Twitter handle (@iPass4Zona) tells you where his head is at.
In the last five games, McConnell has become more of a scoring threat, looking to find his own shots as he continues to run U of A's show.
In the first 22 games of the season, McConnell averaged 7.5 points per game. Because of his facilitator's approach, opponents have played off of him a little in order to give help elsewhere.
In the last five contests, the Pittsburgh native has put up 10.6 points per game. Not a drastic change in output, but he is forcing other teams to play honestly and be mindful of him as a scorer.
Just so you know that McConnell hasn't gone "shot-crazy," the 6'1" junior handed out 16 assists on the road against Utah and Colorado without committing a single turnover.
CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein hit the nail on the head:
Not sure a PG can play better than T.J. McConnell did last night vs. Colorado. 9 points, 10 assists, 4 steals, 0 turnovers. Glue Guy.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 23, 2014
Obviously, McConnell's emergence as a scoring threat has not distracted him from his primary role of finding his teammates and setting them up to put points on the board. Arizona's postseason performance will be strongly influenced by McConnell's all-around output.
Running More through Zeus
Sophomore center Tarczewski is taking on a much more dynamic role in the Arizona attack. In his first season-and-a-half in Tucson, Zeus has functioned primarily as a rim protector and board crasher.
Recently, the Arizona offense is being run on a more regular basis through the post, giving the 7-footer quite a few more touches.
The results are positive. Tarczewski, in the last six games, is averaging 12 points and 9.8 rebounds. Against Utah, he also blocked three shots.
While the Claremont, N.H., native is not likely to become a main option in the Cats offensive scheme, his 78.2 percent free-throw shooting (team leader) gives U of A a player to give the ball to in order to draw fouls and get points at the line.
More than a Beyond-the-Arc Bomber
Sophomore guard Gabe York has been Arizona's designated deep threat for most of the 2013-14 season.
The 6'3" sophomore leads the team in three-point shooting percentage (39.8 percent). Even in coming off the bench and averaging less than 20 minutes per game, York is tied with Nick Johnson for made three-pointers (39).
Over the last five games, the SoCal native has demonstrated that he is more than just a spark off the bench or a one-trick pony.
Against Utah, York tied Johnson for high-scoring honors with 15 points. He also grabbed four rebounds and handed out two assists.
When the Cats faced Colorado on Saturday, York only scored four points, but he grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds. His previous high in 42 collegiate outings was five boards.
This sudden rise in performance may not be coincidental. The Arizona Daily Star's Bruce Pascoe reported that Sean Miller announced that York would be starting against Utah. He said that "it was all about igniting something in Gabe York."
We wanted to give Gabe an opportunity at the beginning. Sometimes if you give a guy a fresh opportunity, they play with more confidence. And it ended up working. He shot the ball like he’s capable of.
York's biggest contribution going forward is likely to be his ability to fill it up from distance. However, he will help his team and his own cause considerably if he is a factor on defense and on the boards.
Many assumed that Arizona's NCAA title chances were all but destroyed when Ashley's season ended with his foot injury at Cal.
How far will Arizona go in the 2014 NCAA tournament?
Game by game, the Wildcats are making adjustments and progress.
Not too many teams could lose a player of Ashley's caliber in the middle of the year without their season coming unraveled.
With a pair of home games against the Bay Area teams and two road contests against Oregon State and Oregon, Miller is putting U of A back into position to win the Pac-12 regular-season and postseason tournament, as well as make a deep run in March Madness.