Schu Strings: Foundation in place

In a year where the Boston Red Sox won a championship, why should we be at all surprised with the UA basketball team's reversal of roles? As the non-conference season winds to a close, Arizona features a team of stellar defenders that inexplicably struggles on the offensive end.

The Manhattan game notwithstanding, the 2004-05 version of Arizona hoops, consisting largely of last year's cast, has gone from offensive juggernaut to defensive container. Prior to Tuesday's century-mark explosion, Arizona averaged less than 70 points per game on the season. But it has effectively kept its opposition well below that barrier.

And it's done it in rather non-UA fashion. Instead of creating havoc on the perimeter, Arizona has shored up its halfcourt game. As a result, it's engaged in a number of encounters decided by a possession in the final minutes, and on every occasion the defense has held. Even in the loss to Wake Forest, the Wildcat defense did what was required. The offense simply couldn't answer on the other end.

Arizona's halfcourt style approach has also led to another phenomenon. It has limited easy buckets in transition, and that is a direct correlation to the lack of consistent offensive production, and a direct correlation to the reason the UA scored 105 against Manhattan.

As a rule, teams will attempt to slow the tempo against Lute Olson's more athletic unit. Much of determining tempo has to do with creating opportunities on the defensive end. Recent editions of the UA have made a living off blocked shots and open-floor steals that led to fastbreak opportunities and clusters of points on the scoreboard. For the most part, this team hasn't, which goes a long way in explaining scores lower than we are accustomed.

Olson has stated he believes this team has the potential to be the best defensive unit he's coached. High praise, to say the least, for a program that has trotted out squads that forced the opposition to shoot in the low 40 percentile. But to date, Arizona has indicated it's a possibility, at least in the halfcourt aspect, hugely important when every possession takes on greater meaning in the NCAA tournament.

That said, the UA will have to improve in the steals category. It registered 16 against Manhattan, and rolled to the high-scoring easy win. Being a bear in the open floor might be the impetus Arizona needs to break out of its offensive doldrums. The UA sometimes struggles to get open, sometimes struggles getting into the lane and sometimes struggles with its shot. Transition buckets are a heck of a lot easier than working hard on every possession in a halfcourt game, and it can go a long way toward opening up the margin up victory.

As it is, Arizona appears to be one of the top two teams in the Pac-10 this season. However, the closer the game, the lower the score, the more there's a possibility it could be caught by some lesser squads on good nights simply because of its inability to get the offense rolling.

As the non-conference season winds down, there are a lot of positives. If this team is like a building, starting with halfcourt defense and rebounding is a great foundation, and the UA looks very good in those categories. While there's still work to be done in terms of offensive consistency and open-floor defense, there's reason to be pleased about the immediate future.

It's been a couple years since Wildcat fans had that kind of holiday optimism.

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