Arizona Wildcats' Blueprint to Win 2014 NCAA Tournament

Casey CroweFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

Arizona Wildcats' Blueprint to Win 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell is one of the reasons to believe the Wildcats are still capable of a title run.
    Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell is one of the reasons to believe the Wildcats are still capable of a title run.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    The Arizona Wildcats claimed the West's No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament—a foregone conclusion for the bulk of the season.

    But Sean Miller's blueprint for facing the field from that high-profile slot was fundamentally altered over the last month.

    Since losing power forward Brandon Ashley—one of the team's premier rebounders, interior defenders and mid-range shooters—to a broken foot in early February, Arizona went from polishing a Final Four lock to figuring out how to play minus absolute low-post dominance.

    All four of the Wildcats' losses have come since losing Ashley—road losses at Cal, Arizona State and Oregon, and a neutral-site defeat to UCLA in the Pac-12 tourney. It was 21-0 before the injury, 9-4 since. 

    But the Wildcats have also compiled four of their most dominating performances of 2014 since that rough night in Berkeley:

    • An 88-61 win at tourney-bound Colorado, one of the most difficult road environments in college hoops.
    • A 87-59 rout of the Cal team that broke the Wildcats' undefeated run on the day Ashley went down for the year.
    • A 71-39 pounding of fringe NCAA bubble-team Utah, followed by a second 20-plus point beatdown of Colorado, in the Pac-12 tourney.

    There is still plenty to like about this Arizona team, even in the absence of one of its stars.

    Here is the layout for Arizona making a serious run at the national title.

Stop the Abomination at the Line

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    Aaron Gordon is one of the country's best players, except at the free-throw line.
    Aaron Gordon is one of the country's best players, except at the free-throw line.Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    Sean Miller was one of the best free-throw shooters in the history of college basketball as a point guard at Pitt, according to

    That must make this group's brutal showing unbearable for the coach and baffling for everyone else.

    Arizona is hitting just 65.5 percent of its free throws—520-of-794 on the season. That's good for 311th out of 351 Division I teams. 

    In its last three losses, Arizona went a combined 33-of-65 from the line.

    The main culprits is among Arizona's best players and a potential NBA lottery pick.

    Aaron Gordon isn't one of the worst free-throw shooters in the country. He is the worst free-throw shooter in the country for anyone who has over 150 attempts, hitting just 43.5 percent on the season.

    It's mental for Gordon at this point, as the majority of his game owns a pro look and there does not appear to be mechanical issues in his stroke.

    If he's able to erase his past failures and make the NCAA tourney his showcase for a refined mindset, he'll return to the top five across NBA draft boards and Arizona will return to the Final Four for the first time since 2001.

    But Gordon isn't the only one in need of improvement here: T.J. McConnell sits at 62.8 percent, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is at 64.8 and Gabe York at 69.8.

    Only two members of the rotation sit above 70 percent—Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski.

Continue to Play the Best Defense in the Country

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    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's defensive flexibility is key to Arizona's attack.
    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's defensive flexibility is key to Arizona's attack.Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency metrics—used to estimate points allowed per 100 possessions—Arizona is the best defensive team in the country.

    According to the, that's kind of a big deal when predicting legit Final Four contenders.

    Possessor of one of the most talent-rich rosters in the country, the Wildcats do not have any issues in terms of defensive motivation and the reason Arizona still held firmly onto a No. 1 seed, even despite four losses in its last 13 contests.

    There is no mercy for the opposition on that end—just ask Washington State, a club the Cats held to seven points in an entire half to open conference play. Last Thursday, Utah felt a similar pain as Arizona stifled the Utes to 13 points in the opening half en route to a 21-point lead at intermission.

    On the season, Arizona only coughed up more than 70 points on three occasions—twice to UCLA and once at No. 2-seeded Michigan.

    Even when the offense struggled, which it did at times in 2013-14, the defense ensured Arizona maintained striking distance in every game for the duration of the regular season and conference tournament.

Let the Backcourt Dominate the Offense

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    Gabe York's long-range prowess is becoming a key part of Arizona's offense.
    Gabe York's long-range prowess is becoming a key part of Arizona's offense.Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    Arizona's most memorable NCAA tournament run ever came with the bulk of the offense running through a trio of NBA-bound guards. Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Jason Terry were the main playmakers in the program's title run in 1997.

    In 2014, look for T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson and Gabe York to play similarly crucial roles in the backcourt, with their offensive efficiency key in ensuring a deep tourney run for Arizona.

    McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, is Sean Miller's first true point guard at Arizona, an assist machine—with a better than 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio—who's shown off his shooting touch more regularly in recent weeks. He's as important defensively, taking away 1.8 steals per game.

    Johnson is the Pac-12 Player of the Year, Arizona's leading scorer and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He is going to be option No. 1 at all times for the Wildcats. He's also known for his 47-inch vertical, leading to momentum-swinging dunks and blocks against substantially larger players (h/t

    York is the owner of the program's purest-looking outside stroke, with his ability to spread the floor with precision from beyond the three-point stripe now critical to the offense. He's actually shooting better from that distance than field-goal range—39.3 percent to 37.6 percent.

    Although Kaleb Tarczweski has shown glimpses of being a solid scoring threat down low, Brandon Ashley was Arizona's true offensive threat in the post before his injury. And while Aaron Gordon is a strong slasher and finisher near the basket, his woes at the stripe make him a questionable late-game option.

    The guards will have to do the scoring in crunch time if Arizona is to proceed unto Dallas.

Maintain Total Control of the Glass

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    Aaron Gordon led Arizona in rebounds in 2013-14.
    Aaron Gordon led Arizona in rebounds in 2013-14.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Aaron Gordon entered the University of Arizona in the conversation as the most lauded freshman in program history, a loud statement for a school with a string of McDonald's All-Americans and future pros over the last three decades.

    But he wasn't just on the McDonald's roster—he was MVP of the game. And his offseason work with Team USA led to him being named USA Basketball's male athlete of the year.

    While he hasn't been Carmelo Anthony circa 2003, Gordon—averaging 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds—has shown glimpses of being able to take over games on both sides of the court.

    And even when he's struggling offensively—a problem exacerbated by his poor average at the free-throw line—he's never lacking for intensity, particularly on the glass.

    He is the leading rebounder on the squad by a substantial margin, ahead of second-place Kaleb Tarczewski by 53—265 to 212.

    The work of that duo, combined with guards who are willing to hit the boards consistently, allowed the Cats to accumulate a plus-8.5 margin in rebounds per game for the season, helping to mask occasionally inconsistent shooting. 

Take Over Your Surroundings

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    Expect Arizona fans to take over any of the Wildcats' nearby tourney destinations.
    Expect Arizona fans to take over any of the Wildcats' nearby tourney destinations.WILY LOW/Associated Press

    Arizona went undefeated in Tucson and lost just once on a neutral court.

    With one of the most rabid fanbases in college hoops, Arizona followers are expected to travel en masse to back their crew. And this year, they will not have to fly far, setting up a strong home-court advantage for at least their first four possible matchups.

    The Wildcats will open NCAA tourney play in San Diego, 400 miles from Tucson and regularly flooded by Zonies.

    They'll face No. 16 Weber State in the second round on Friday and the winner of No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State—arguably the most dangerous team in that slot in the tournament—two days later.

    If all that goes according to plan, the Cats will head just up the freeway to the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., another easy-to-reach locale for Tucsonans and a hotbed for alums, for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

    That site also treated the program pretty well in its last postseason experience up there, as Arizona claimed a thunderous Sweet 16 upset over then-defending champ Duke followed by a close loss to eventual national champion UConn in 2011.

    The other half of the West bracket features Big Ten power Wisconsin in the No. 2 slot, Doug McDermott-led Creighton as the three, and Pac-12 foe Oregon—a team that already beat Arizona once this year—entering the tourney as a hot No. 7.

    If the Cats sweep through all contests in California, the Final Four and national championship game are a state away from Arizona in Arlington, Texas—not a far-wrought destination.

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