2014 was a good year for Arizona. But the past is the past, and champions are not crowned from yesterday’s success. Here’s a look at what Arizona needs to improve on in 2015 in order to get to the Final Four.
Accountability on Defense
In Arizona’s only loss of the season, they were badly outplayed in one-on-one situations. It wasn’t pretty and doesn’t need re-hashing, but a weakness was exposed.
Don’t get it twisted, Sean Miller coaches defense above everything else. But for all the brilliantly schemed team defense, none of it matters when one defender can’t stop his assignment. And that’s exactly what beat Arizona for the first time in three years of non-conference play.
With a roster as talented as the Wildcats’, being outplayed in isolation situations isn’t that big of a concern in the grand scheme. Against most teams, Arizona’s talent will be enough to shine through and what happened against UNLV won’t be the norm.
But in the tough games that require a grind-it-out performance, like those that await Arizona in the NCAA Tournament, those situations become of paramount importance. And if the Cats can’t stop the hot hand, then they are as susceptible to defeat as any lower seed.
Arizona’s offense has stagnated at times, which is somewhat shameful for a team with so many offensive weapons. But an efficient offense is about so much more than the combination of talented pieces. Synergy matters. And for all of Arizona’s talent, it hasn’t gelled yet.
That’s not an indictment. Very few teams in the nation could lose significant offensive pieces in Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon and not skip a beat. But Arizona clearly has room to improve in that area, and it could be the biggest factor in whether the Wildcats can round into championship form this year.
If you talk to anyone who has played the game, they’ll tell you that rhythm is everything. Stringing together a couple good possessions can be a world of difference in the heat of battle. And that’s why Arizona fans should be hopeful that this team will correct their offensive hiccups. It takes time to hear the proverbial “click.”
If there’s one common theme throughout Arizona’s season of close calls, it’s that they’ve lacked the leaders that carry teams through rough games. During the Gonzaga game, Brandon Ashley stepped up and put the team on his back. And TJ McConnell has provided the fire at numerous critical junctures.
But it hasn’t been consistent. When their backs are up against the wall, there’s not one player who will rise to the occasion. Arizona’s exceptional balance has, in one way, been a detriment. It’s almost as if the players are still figuring out who should take the shot when the game is on the line.
Stanley Johnson stepped up and tried to take on that role, though it didn’t work out as planned against UNLV. But he showed an aggression and assertiveness that others haven’t. And that’s one thing that Arizona has been missing when the game is on the line.
That’s not to say that Stanley Johnson should always take the last shot. It just means that more players need to shoot with the confidence that Johnson does, especially when the game is on the line. The fact that a freshman is challenging for that role underscores Arizona’s need to improve their offense at the game’s most crucial points.
Ultimately, it takes a lot of good luck to go deep in the tournament. A lot of supremely talented teams fall short, that’s just the nature of the game. Arizona could be one of those teams.
But they’re also one of very few teams in the country that can swing the other way, and bring home a title if they click at the right time. There are maybe a handful of teams in all of NCAA basketball that can claim that kind of ceiling.