Now that Sean Miller has his system firmly in place and is recruiting the players he wants, Arizona’s defense has been marvelous.
The defensive units in recent years have rated highly across different metrics, and last year’s group was probably the most dominant defensive team in the country when at full health.
It’s great feeling to see your team force opponents into fits of frustration, as arguing teammates walk back to a crestfallen bench.
Perhaps one the most overlooked strokes of coaching genius is that Miller has assembled such dominant defenses without elite shot blocking from the power forward or center positions. Both Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, while excellent players, are not big time shot blockers.
Most of the dominant defenses year after year are anchored by tall, shot-blocking menaces who alter the game with their defensive ability. Yet Arizona has managed to be one of the best without an elite rim protector.
How did they do it?
First and foremost, Arizona’s defense did a great job not allowing opponents to get to the rim. According to Hoop-Math.com, only 24.7% of opponents’ shots came at the rim. By comparison, 26.5% of opponents’ shots came from three point distance, and a whopping 48.8% came on two point jumpshots.
That’s a telling stat. The Wildcats forced opponents into midrange shots more than anything, thereby limiting the need to have a shot-blocking presence in the middle.
But Arizona didn’t just force opponents into two point jumpshots, they forced them into bad two point jumpshots. Opponents shot just 32% on two point jumpshots against the Wildcats, one of the best marks in the country. If you include shots at the rim in that figure, Arizona held opponents to just 40% on all two pointers, which was second best in the nation.
The only top 25 teams that were even close to that mark were 1-seed Virginia and eventual National Champion UConn.
What’s just as eye-opening is that Arizona blocked 10% of their opponents’ two point jumpshots. That’s the same rate at which they blocked shots at the rim. And considering that opponents took most of their shots from that range, it makes the Wildcats’ two point defense all the more impressive.
With great perimeter defenders like Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon cutting off penetration, the Wildcats were tough to beat off the dribble. Without them, Arizona will have big shoes to fill.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the natural fit to bolster Arizona’s two point defense next season. His defensive ability and flexibility will make him one of the Wildcats’ most crucial players and the linchpin of the starting lineup.
Hollis-Jefferson’s ability to defend guards and forwards will be critical in replacing the defensive ability that the Cats lost to the NBA Draft.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be too surprised if Arizona’s defense takes a little step backward, afterall when you’re #1 there’s nowhere to go but down. And replacing Johnson and Gordon’s defense might be too much to ask, at least right away.
But Arizona is more than capable of fielding a top notch defensive team with the pieces they have. Someone will have to step up defensively at the shooting guard position, though, and whoever does that might earn the biggest role.
It’s more than likely that we will see another great defensive team next year, even if it takes on a different form than last years two point funneling scheme. Watching how Hollis-Jefferson and others react and adapt to new defensive roles will be one of many storylines to look forward to in the coming season.