On defense, Arizona was equally impressive.
Heading into the game the Titans were averaging 85.7 points per game while shooting an efficient 50 percent as a team. Tonight CSUF shot just 33.8 percent overall and 35 percent from behind the arc (7-20). Arizona forced the Titans into many hurried and off balanced shots which, I'm pleased to say, is becoming a regular event for Wildcat opponents. The defense did not stop there though as the Wildcats forced 14 turnovers, seven of which were steals.
Arizona also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Titans 35-27. Add it all up and it's easy to see how Arizona was able to win tonight's game, 91-65.
Now, I could break down this game detail by detail. However, in a 26 point blowout, and that's exactly what this was as the final score is every bit indicative of how the game played out, that would generate little interest. Instead, I'm going to provide you with what I've learned about this team through the first six games.
With a 4-2 record and not having yet beaten a ranked team, obviously there is both good and bad factored into the equation but despite the setbacks to Virginia and Kansas, I'd rate this team a 7.5 on a scale of 1-10. Here's why:
This season Arizona has a renewed focus on defense and if you can't see it, then you're not watching the games closely enough. Virginia's two-time ACC Player of the Year Sean Singletary said after the Arizona game that no team has ever defended him harder. Post game comments after the Kansas loss have Bill Self saying things like his team played stupid and careless, but I'd counter that when faced by a strong defense, cavalier play is an end-product of being defended well. The four lower ranked opponents have combined to shoot only 41.7 from the field against Arizona. To Virginia's and Kansas' credit, they did shoot 51 and 50 percent, respectively, but many points came off of Arizona turnovers that led to easy baskets. As interim head coach Kevin O'Neill said during his weekly press conference, "breakaways off of turnovers are indefensible," so when added to the mix, the breakaway points paint an inaccurate picture of how Arizona has defended in the transition and half-court game. What I like most, which was especially apparent tonight, is that every single player who takes the floor for Arizona is committed to the defensive cause. Even Chase Budinger and Jawann McClellan, who are anything but a lockdown defenders, are busting tail out there and maximizing their potential by demonstrating great anticipation and off-ball help.
Long gone are the days of cherry picking and quick run outs by Arizona's offensive-minded players as all five Wildcats on the floor are now crashing the defensive boards. Because of their, at times, smaller lineups, some would argue Arizona is doing this out of necessity but in reality, their effort on the glass is simply an extension of playing good defense. There's no point in playing hard for 30 plus seconds only to give up two points on an offensive rebound and put back. Arizona still needs to box out more, but they're doing a good job of securing the ball when they do get their hands on it and are properly hitting the outlet with crisp passes. Still, there's room to be worked on in this area. Tonight, CSUF had 13 offensive boards, which is unacceptable. The Wildcats were also outrebounded by NAU 37-30 and Virginia 25-23. Those were the first two games of the season, though. Since then, Arizona is averaging 32 rebounds per game and outrebounded the taller and stronger Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence 34-28. If Arizona's leapers can begin to box out opponents, the extra rebounds they do corral will help this team win the close games.
Free Throw Shooting
Arizona has converted 107 of 140 attempts this season which equates to slightly better than a 76 percent average from the line. While this number is not staggering, when you consider that an abundance of freshman and little used sophomores from last season are taking these shots, it's easy to see that this percentage will only improve as the season wears on. One example is freshman guard Bayless. In his first two games, he missed a combined eight free throws. In the four games since, he's missed three (26-29) including a perfect seven of seven at Kansas' hostile Allen Fieldhouse. In what's expected to be a highly-competitive Pac-10 Conference where many games will be decided in the final minutes, oftentimes the team that makes the most free throws wins. This will bode well for the Wildcats as all of the players are better than average from the line while guys like Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and now Bayless are extremely solid standing alone at the charity stripe.
Better, Crisper Passing
In their first six games, playing six freshmen or sophomores regularly, Arizona has eclipsed the 20 assist mark four times. What does this mean? This means that Arizona is finally playing like a team again. Rarely, will you see an Arizona player go one-on-two and heave a bad shot in traffic. Sure, it's happened, but this team is doing a better job of finding ways to score in the half court set, or hitting the right player at the right time so they can score in transition. Even in the game against Kansas where Arizona had only 14 assists, the team only made 24 field goals which means that more than half of their baskets were scored by someone setting someone else up. (Side note: I'll address the negative side of Arizona's passing later in the article).
As referenced above, Arizona is now officially a team. Players who aren't playing aren't complaining. Instead, they're just practicing harder in search of more playing time. Players are passing up decent shots for better shots. Guys are moving without the ball and for the first time in a long while, Arizona is actually running an identifiable offense with few players freelancing on the court. On both ends of the court, the entire team is extremely active. Arizona has had some spells of inactivity or lack of motion on offense but those spells seem to get shorter and shorter with each game played. Tonight against the Titans, Arizona was extremely effective in moving without the ball, maintaining balance on the floor, and getting into position to crash the boards. On defense, the improvements are even greater. Defensively, Arizona is providing tremendous help on the baseline often trapping opponents who dare to dribble there. The team is also communicating much better and as a result is switching less. This has helped to eliminate the mismatches Arizona found themselves in all of last season when teams ran a UCLA-like weaving offense. Against Kansas, Arizona completely neutralized the Jayhawks in the second half and made their weave nothing more than five guys dribbling out the shot clock. Against CSUF, Arizona defended very well. Bret Brielmaier and Hill have been great at hedging screens, allowing the guards enough time to fight through high screens and recover without forcing the bigger Wildcats to switch and defend quicker guards. This may sound like petty stuff but that's what offense is all about. You try to out-execute a defense with constant motion and screens to force switches and create mismatches which you can then exploit and attack. Arizona played mediocre to, at times, outright poor defense all of last season but mercifully, fans don't have to sit through that anymore.
The players respect Kevin O'Neill, Josh Pastner and Miles Simon. It's so obvious. Tonight, when Hill picked up his third foul, heading off the court O'Neill stopped the big man and engaged him both physically and mentally. So much so, that Hill had an arm draped over Coach while Coach held him around the waist. The two were actively engaged in conversation and both were "listening" to one another. I don't care what anyone says but that tells me two things: the players respect the coaching staff and the coaching staff is "teaching" at all times. The other occasion came during a timeout where O'Neill had Bayless in one arm and Jamelle Horne in the other, again teaching and giving the two freshmen the attention they need to learn. When Lute Olson returns to the bench, he'll have one of the most complete products he's had to work with in many years because of the efforts of Arizona's three current active coaches and the commitment to excellence each of Arizona's athletes are demonstrating on a daily basis. The other intangible is Arizona's all-out effort on both sides of the floor. I can't remember an entire season when so many Wildcats have hit the floor, diving for loose balls and just flat out battling for every possession. These guys have and are showing a lot of heart and as a Wildcat fan first, and a college basketball fan second, it gives me great pleasure to again see an Arizona team that's not afraid to get after it.
Now for the 2.5 that's missing from Arizona grading a perfect 10:
Turnovers This has been a troubling statistic for Arizona all season, but one that I'm not overly worried about, yet. Arizona had 25 turnovers against Kansas in a four-point overtime loss on the road. To say that's too many is the understatement of the year. For the season, they're averaging 15 but that includes the NAU game when they only had five. Unlike last season where a group of seniors led the team in turnovers, this season it's a group of underclassmen with little to no Division-I experience. The more games they play, the more they're learn when and when not to press the action so I don't expect the same turnover problems that plagued last year's team to continue to hurt this year's squad. That said if they don't stop being careless soon, it'll be difficult to compete against better teams, including those they'll face during conference play.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a Kevin O'Neill thing. This is an Arizona thing as I can hardly remember the last time Arizona ran a truly great inbounds play or offensive set in the waning seconds of a game. When Michael Wright was playing, Arizona would run a high-low with him and Woods that was practically indefensible. Arizona won several games during his tenure by planting him three feet from the basket after feeding Woods at the free throw line. In the seasons since, we've witnessed the Adams jumper against Illinois in the Elite Eight and host of other poorly executed clutch plays. Arizona needs to figure something out and something quick because I'm expecting several, if not all, Pac-10 games to be decided in the closing minutes this season. I'd have the ball in Bayless' hands at all times as he can create any shot he wants on the court. I'd also look to get him, Budinger and Hill involved in every last-second play with possibly Horne rubbing off a high backdoor screen on the weak side for a possible lob and dunk. You can screen for him using Nic Wise, Daniel Dillon or Jawann McClellan who can then float to the three-point line. More importantly, I'd try and not put Arizona in a situation where they need to kill a ton of clock before starting the final play. The standing at half court holding the ball thing doesn't work for me. In the Kansas scenario the other night, I would've been running my normal offense knowing that with 15 seconds to go the team could then shift into the "game winning" play that's been called. This way, the defense is constantly moving instead of standing around and being able to identify which key scorer is moving where for the big shot. If this isn't making sense then I apologize. All I'm saying is that by running your offense for the entire shot clock, a natural breakdown in a defense may occur and you may get an easy look or a lay up without having to wait for Budinger to run through four screens as the clock winds down. This way, you can run your offense and look for a score and if that fails, you may have the defensive out of position to create the mismatch you're looking for in your actual "winning" play.
Arizona is young. Very young. Still, the younger Wildcats are playing extremely hard and are improving from game to game. Once they learn to work at a high level and better execute under pressure, they'll only get better. Youth is attributed to the turnovers and some of the dysfunction that has occurred late in games. The more games they play, the more they'll be able to recognize game and clock situations which help them to better take advantage of what the opponent is or is not giving them.
Overall, this is a deep and talented Arizona team that many are underestimating because of their record. No future win is a guarantee and what I like about this team is they recognize that. This season, Arizona is playing with the kind of passion that tells me that they understand that winning at Arizona is not a birthright. Instead, it's the end product of hard work and execution in both practice and games. Arizona is learning the hard way that turnovers and poor execution at this level equates to losses while making free throws, rebounding, limiting mistakes, playing solid defense and working as a team equates to wins.
Tonight, Arizona players were winners but in my eyes, they've been winners all season.