Arizona Wildcats Basketball: Why They Are Best Defensive Team in School History
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — During the Lute Olson years, the Arizona Wildcats prided themselves on defense but also a transition game that enabled them to stay ahead of the pace of their opponents.
The Arizona Wildcats are ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense with 73.5 points per game. In the pre-Sean Miller era, a No. 8 ranking in that category would be ungodly with the likes of Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves, Gilbert Arenas, Andre Iguodala and Jerryd Bayless, etc.
Arizona's faithful have adapted to the change of principle under Sean Miller, who has developed a defense-first mentality with his players.
"I have changed my mindset to thinking everything starts with defense," Gabe York, a sophomore guard, told me after Arizona's 71-39 shutdown win over Utah in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals Thursday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
"I have realized that if you concentrate on your defense, everything else will fall into place. It all starts with staying in front of your man and make the stop. The offense will take care of itself."
This is coming from a player who was recruited out of high school as primarily an accurate perimeter shooter.
Arizona's mindset on defense has enabled it to be the best defensive team in the history of the program, which has evolved into one of the nation's elite since Olson arrived in Tucson.
Some of the factors that contribute to that claim are defensive statistics rarely (if ever) produced and the play of starting perimeter players Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell, the best defensive tandem in Wildcat history.
The following slideshow documents why the 2013-14 Arizona Wildcats are the best defensive team since the school started playing basketball 109 years ago.
No. 5: Unmatched Importance Sean Miller Places on Defense
Lute Olson, the best coach in the history of Arizona Wildcats basketball, instilled the mentality that defense matters to Arizona's execution on the offensive end.
Sean Miller, in only his fifth year in Tucson, has the same principles but is a more analytic defensive coach. He has produced videos on how to coach defenses. He is also advanced enough with his philosophies that he has a "Seven Tenets of Defense" studied by today's coaches at the high school level.
Miller won't stand for a defender backpedaling down the court to play defense. If the player does not sprint toward the defensive end, the player sits, even if it's his leading scorer. Defense trumps all.
Miller is also strictly a man-to-man defensive coach. His defense is basic. It's the most important part of what he terms "The Process" daily in practice.
Olson switched up his defenses. One of his most memorable was a matchup zone in which players often extended out from a zone structure to a particular player.
While Olson preached scoring in transition and maintaining a fast pace, Miller is more for preventing opponents from scoring rather than trying to outscore them.
No. 4: Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Best Freshmen Defenders
Arizona has never featured two high-profile freshmen who pride themselves more on their defense than their offense.
More impressive is the fact that Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are McDonald's All-Americans in this day and age of slam dunks and highlight-reel flair. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson can certainly hold their own in that regard, but they also play defense in a way that is a highlight for Sean Miller.
Hollis-Jefferson leads the Wildcats with 31 blocked shots. Gordon has 27, one behind sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski for second.
Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon also combine for 46 steals. The top 15 in steals in the Pac-12 do not include a freshman. No. 15 is Oregon senior guard Johnathan Loyd, who has 35 steals. Gordon has 24 steals and Hollis-Jefferson has 22.
Hollis-Jefferson is miffed that neither he nor Gordon was a part of the conference's all-defensive team.
“We’re great defenders and I think that was kind of crazy that we were not on that,” Hollis-Jefferson said after the Wildcats' 71-39 victory over Utah on Thursday in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal.
No. 3: Strongest Against Limiting the Three-Pointer
The three-point line has revolutionized the game, with teams concentrating on that aspect of the game for some of their offensive production.
The Arizona Wildcats have shut that down for the most part this season.
The Wildcats rank seventh nationally limiting opponents to an overall shooting percentage of 38.2. Opponents are shooting only 31.1 percent from three-point range.
The most impressive element of Arizona's three-point shooting defense is the lack of opportunities Sean Miller's teams have allowed to attempt from beyond the arc.
The 2010-11 team holds the Arizona record limiting opponents to 28.5 percent. Opponents that year attempted 596 and made 170.
Opponents attempted 15.7 three-pointers a game that season. This season, they have tried 14.6.
Limiting the looks can be more important than limiting the percentage.
No. 2: Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell Best Defensive Perimeter Tandem
Other Arizona Wildcats backcourts are known more for their offensive production. The backcourt tandem of Nick johnson and T.J. McConnell is unmatched when it comes to a defensive mentality.
Since Arizona joined the Pac-12 in 1978, the best backcourts have included Steve Kerr and Craig McMillan, Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves, Miles Simon and Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas. Those tandems include solid individual defenders such as Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner.
Kerr, Reeves, Simon and Arenas were more offensive-minded.
Johnson and McConnell are not overwhelming scorers (16.1 and 8.5 points a game, respectively) and they do not shoot a high percentage (Johnson is a 35.5 percent three-point shooter and McConnell is at 32.5).
Arizona coach Sean Miller needs them at their best on the defensive end to limit scoring opportunities and high-percentage shots by opponents. That's their strength and it sets them apart from Arizona's other talented backcourts.
They were selected to the Pac-12's All-Defensive team earlier this week.
"From a defensive perspective, both T.J. and Nick, they bring a great will, a great desire and talent on that end of the court," Miller said after the Wildcats shutdown Utah in a 71-39 win in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals on Thursday.
"Scoring points is always something that people pay attention to, assists, production, all those types of things."
Arizona fans are paying more attention now to how the Wildcats stop the opponent and not as much about how they will get to 90 points on the offensive end.
No. 1: Holding Opponent Offenses to Rare Numbers
Not since the 1950-51 season have the Arizona Wildcats prevented opponents from scoring at least 80 points in a game.
Arizona has accomplished that feat with the season winding down.
Five opponents have scored fewer than 50 points this season, including Utah in the Wildcats' 71-39 drubbing Thursday at MGM Grand Garden Arena. The last time that many opponents failed to reach the 50-point mark was also in 1950-51, when seven opponents were held that low.
Arizona broke longstanding Pac-12 tournament records in its win over Utah, limiting the Utes to 39 points, a 25.5 shooting percentage from the field and only 12 field goals.
According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense rating, Sean Miller's team has the best defense in Division I, holding opponents to 0.865 points per possession.
In his first season (2009-10), Miller's team ranked 108th in that category.