As the #1 Arizona Wildcats (13-0) wrapped up another undefeated non-conference schedule on Monday, PGU’s Aaron Foshie takes a look at what we have learned thus far and hands out non-conference grades for each player.
What are the strengths of this Arizona team through 2013?
Defense. Arizona ranks sixth nationally in terms of Opponents Points per Game, allowing 56.7 per contest. They allow opponents to shoot 37.2% from the field, a figure that ranks 7th nationally. Lastly, they keep their opponents off the free throw line as they only commit 16 fouls per game, a figure good for 12th nationally.
Much of this can be attributed to Arizona’s length and athleticism, but you can see this team is committed on the defensive end of the floor. Defensive effort is one variable that you can always control, and this will come in handy come tournament time when Arizona is faced with neutral court venues.
A balanced scoring effort has also led the Cats to success. Arizona currently has four players averaging double figures, and the remaining rotation players have all shown the ability to pour in 13+ points when their number is called. Not only do the Cats have multiple guys who can score, but they do so unselfishly. They pass up good shots to get great shots, and because of this they rank 19th nationally with a 49.1% Team Shooting Percentage.
The fact that Arizona has 7-8 players that can hit open shots makes them extremely hard to guard. Even Arizona’s misses are (mostly) great shots, and on most occasions you can count on one hand the amount of poor shots the Cats take in a game. This fact, along with their reliable defense, means they will rarely, if ever, beat themselves.
We can’t tall about the Wildcats’ success without rebounding. Arizona ranks first nationally in rebounding rate, gathering an astounding 59.3% of total rebounds available. Couple this with the fact that their halfcourt, first-shot defense is as good as anybody in the country’s (Ohio State included), and you have a recipe for the great success that we have seen thus far.
While I am not entirely surprised Arizona is a great rebounding team given their frontcourt, I have been very surprised with how well their guards have rebounded at their positions. T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson do a great job of weakside rebounding, and because of this they are able to place immediate pressure on opposition’s transition defense. Arizona has shown the ability to translate defense to offense because of their skill in finishing possessions with rebounds, and this will continue to come in handy on days when their shots are not falling as consistently.
What are the weaknesses?
Turnovers. Arizona ranks 68th nationally, averaging 11.2 turnovers per game.
Although this figure is not terrible, and the Cats have done a markedly better job protecting the ball over the past three games (Michigan, Southern, NAU), it is worth mentioning that Arizona has been very sloppy at times. This issue has led to extended scoring droughts that have either faced Arizona with an early deficit or allowed an inferior team to hang around longer than they should have.
With as efficient and multifaceted as Arizona’s offense is, it is imperative that they get a shot every trip down the floor. Turnovers not only prohibit Arizona from scoring, but they allow the opposition a chance to attack before the Wildcats’ elite defense gets set.
Free throw shooting. Statistically, this is where Arizona struggles the most on a national scale. At 67.2%, the Wildcats rank 239th nationally.
For a team that has more athleticism than just about every team in the conference outside of Oregon, they must begin to capitalize on their free throw opportunities on a regular basis. Granted, Arizona has been phenomenal at the line in marquee games, highlighted by a 14/15 effort against Michigan where the only miss was on purpose in the closing seconds.
One could argue that the free throw numbers are a bit skewed by the 28/62 (45%) of Aaron Gordon, as Arizona shoots 73% if his numbers are omitted. But given his propensity to get fouled it is important to still look at the numbers as a whole. Reports from the team indicate that Gordon is shooting 100+ free throws at the end of every practice and making 75%+ every time, so as fans we can only hope that his persistence and hard work translates into game scenarios.
The year is over, so it’s time to see how the Cats graded out in their semester of play.
T.J. McConnell, A+
What more could you ask for from McConnell thus far? He has used his court vision, playmaking ability, and leadership (6.5 APG) to will Arizona to multiple wins this year and has seamlessly meshed with all personalities. He has been aggressive when he has needed to in seeking his shot, and will need to continue to do so as the season progresses. He also is a top-notch perimeter defender (1.7 SPG). McConnell hasn’t had a bad game yet, and is doing everything asked of him and more.
Nick Johnson, A
Much like McConnell, it is hard to envision Johnson being any more productive than he has been. He has posted 50% FG, 38% 3PFG, and 84% FT% thus far, all while primarily checking the top scoring option for the opposition. He has played his best on the biggest stages, and has done so without changing his calming demeanor. If not for a few off shooting nights, Johnson deserves an A+ just like McConnell.
Kaleb Tarczewski, A
Zeus has shown the ability to post solid scoring numbers despite limited attempts. Averaging 10.1 PPG on 58% shooting, Zeus has shown the ability to dominate the paint for stretches of play this year. When he plays with a physical edge, Arizona becomes a lethal team. He showed great grit battling through an ankle injury to spur a road win at Michigan, and he also has done a great job on opposition’s top post scorers. His absence in the past two games have shown how much he does for this team that can’t be measured by numbers.
Aaron Gordon, A-
It’s truly amazing that a freshman can step into a top 25 program and be a leader from the get go. But Gordon has delivered amidst all the hype that has surrounded him. He has shown a non-stop motor and the ability to attack the rim at will. He has also been a very pleasant surprise from the perimeter, shooting 38% 3PFG on the year. Lastly, I love his ability to defend multiple positions and rebound outside his area. If his FT% were higher, his grade would be as well.
Brandon Ashley, A-
Ashley has developed into one of the most efficient frontcourt scorers the nation, averaging 12.5 PPG on less than nine shots per game. He has also developed into a threat from the perimeter, shooting the three ball at a 45% clip. But what I love most about Ashley has been his development on the defensive end. He struggled with foul trouble last year and early this year, but as he has curtailed those troubles, his effectiveness has skyrocketed. If it weren’t for a rough Drexel game and foul trouble at SDSU, Ashley’s grade could have been on the A/A+ level.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, B+/A-
The greatest thing RHJ brings to this team is his willingness to be the glue guy, essentially doing whatever the team may need him to do. He has openly embraced the sixth man role and provides a spark off the bench on both sides of the floor. He was a little shaky with shot selection early, and really struggled with fouls in the win at Michigan, but his relentlessness and motor far outweigh any of his perceived flaws – namely his jumpshot. He also needs to improve his free throw stroke given his ability to get to the line, and he has done just that in the past few games. Hollis-Jefferson has been one of the biggest surprises of the year, and his versatile defense will continue to add value to the team.
Gabe York, B-
York offered some of the brightest moments of the season early on, as he was knocking down seemingly every shot in sight with ease. However, he compiled a stretch of only 30 points over seven games during the middle of non-conference play that cooled expectations a bit. I love how well he played against NAU, as hopefully he will garner some confidence moving forward. If he steps up like we know he is capable of, Arizona will literally be scary to watch.
Jordin Mayes, C
While Mayes has struggled to find both consistent playing time and his footing on the offensive end, he has done a good job or protecting the ball and being active on defense when he has gotten a chance. Much like York, if he can find a way to contribute offensively on a consistent basis, then Arizona will become even more of a matchup problem. I like the way his teammates have been supporting him, as you can tell they are hoping for him to break through.
Remaining Bench, C-
Admittedly they were not given much of an opportunity, but the remaining guys have done a solid job of filling in when called upon. Matt Korcheck and Elliot Pitts have shown the ability to come in and contribute when necessary, which means Arizona could be a lot worse off if faced with injuries down the line.
The non-conference slate and #1 ranking was a great ride, but inside the conference is where Arizona needs to establish themselves as a power. The Pac-12 is arguably the deepest conference in America so it will be a fun ride to watch without a doubt.
As always feel free to let me know whether you agree or disagree either in the comments or by dropping me a line on twitter @afoshie.