Arizona Basketball: 3 Key Improvements That Arizona Needs to Make in 2014-15

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Arizona Basketball: 3 Key Improvements That Arizona Needs to Make in 2014-15
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Getting to the Final Four is not easy. Even the best programs don't get there all of the time. 

The last time Arizona made it to the NCAA tournament's national semifinals was when it played Duke in the 2001 title game. That was 13 years ago.

Last year, it seemed like the Wildcats' drought was going to be over. Sean Miller's squad started off the 2013-14 season by winning its first 21 games (13-0 in nonconference and the first eight Pac-12 contests). Most college hoops fans and analysts anticipated that U of A would be making a trip to North Texas in April.

But then, Brandon Ashley, Arizona's versatile power forward, broke his foot in a February 1 game at Cal, and the trajectory of the season changed. Even though they won the conference regular season and entered March Madness as a No. 1 seed, the Cats' tourney hopes were not nearly as bright as they were earlier.

U of A made it to the Elite Eight for the second time in four years but ended up losing to Wisconsin in a game that went down to the wire. Close again, but still not getting where it wanted to be.

According to ESPN's Stats and Information, "Arizona is the first team in NCAA Tournament history to lose four Elite Eight games by three points or fewer."

Looking ahead to the 2014-15 season, Miller's Wildcats will be loaded. Not only will they have an exceptionally talented starting five, they will also have a second unit that could be a Top 25 team on its own. 

Talent, depth and potential are not enough to get it done.

What does Arizona have to do to break through to get back to the Final Four? What areas are most important for the Wildcats to address if they are going to make a legitimate run at the school's second men's basketball title?

 

Free-Throw Failures

Arizona was not a good free-throw shooting team last year. Even though a lot of attention was given to Aaron Gordon's atrocious (42.2 percent) accuracy at the line, the Cats also struggled as a team (65.9 percent; No. 305 in the nation).

If you subtract Gordon's brickwork and Nick Johnson's team-leading 78.1 percent, the U of A shot a pedestrian 69.7 percent.

A surprising area of improvement needs to come from the Cats' returning backcourt players. Point guard T.J. McConnell only knocked down 62 percent of his freebies last year, and shooting guard Gabe York only hit 67.3 percent of his attempts.

The good news is that the Cats' frontcourt anchors, Ashley (75.7 percent) and Kaleb Tarczewski (75.6 percent), make their opponents pay when they put them on the line.

The outcomes of close games in 2014-15 will be impacted by Arizona's ability to get to the line often and pick up precious points when there.

 

Dearth from Downtown

Before last season began, many people suspected that U of A was going to struggle in its three-point shooting. In reality, the Cats shot an acceptable 36.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Where they lacked was the frequency of shooting from distance. Arizona attempted 14.8 three-pointers per game (No. 313 in the nation) and made only 5.4 threes per game (No. 259). Only 22.1 percent of the team's points came from beyond the arc.

Sure, the Wildcats were long and strong inside, and they worked hard to get the ball to the rim. However, because they didn't squeeze off more shots from the perimeter, teams tended to pack the lane and make life a little more difficult.

McConnell (36 percent) and York (38.5 percent) are both solid three-point shooters, but the best bomber on the team is rising sophomore Elliott Pitts. After getting his bearings early in the season, Pitts became a valuable marksman coming off the bench, connecting on 39.3 percent of his treys.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Elliott Pitts is ready to fire away

This perimeter trio needs to keep opponents honest by being consistent threats from beyond the arc.

It is uncertain how much three-point shooting help any of the new additions to the team will provide. JUCO all-american Kadeem Allen is an excellent scorer (25.9 PPG as a sophomore at Hutchinson CC; NJCCA.org) but only a 30.5 percent shooter from the business district. All-everything freshman Stanley Johnson is an absolute beast, but he generally does not put most of his points on the board from far off.

 

Partial Pressure

Arizona was one of the nation's best defensive teams in college basketball last year. The Cats ferociously challenged their opponents' shots (No. 1 in opponents' effective field-goal percentage, 42 percent), especially inside the arc (No. 2 in opponent two-point percentage, 40.2 percent).

It was somewhat surprising to find out that the Cats were only average in terms of on-ball pressure in 2013-14. They averaged 5.9 steals per game (No. 192) and forced 12.4 turnovers per game (No. 163).

With Tarczewski protecting the rim and Ashley patrolling the middle, Arizona can take more risks on the perimeter. Because of their extreme overall depth, the Cats could significantly turn up the heat and become passing-lane nightmares without compromising their interior might.

Look for sophomore small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson to torment the unfortunate Pac-12 wings any time they get the ball.

Chris Pietsch/Associated Press
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

 

Looking Ahead

Arizona may not start off the upcoming season winning every game it plays into the month of February.

But if the Wildcats make these improvements, do not be shocked if they plow through both their nonconference and conference schedules and make a serious run at the 2015 Final Four in Indy.

 

Individual and team stats provided by TeamRankings.com.

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