Arizona has improved its defense every year that Sean Miller has been at the helm and next year will be no different. Next year, we can look forward to a team that will dominate the boards, suffocate the ball handler, and snatch away errant passes. All the signs point to an Arizona squad that could become one of the best defensive teams ever at McKale.
Arizona has a full lineup of aggressive, defensive minded players who will attack from start to finish. TJ McConnell and Nick Johnson will be the leaders of Arizona’s defensive onslaught and will smother the opponent’s guards, with the quick hands of senior Jordin Mayes’ help off the bench.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley have already seen incredible progress on defense and will continue to be intimidating, talented, and powerful bodies on the interior. The freshman duo of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have been heralded for their defensive prowess and will round out a wildly talented core group.
It’s obvious that Arizona will have one of the best defenses in the country next year, but here are some specific areas that will define AZ’s defense.
Arizona dominated the boards last year. They were 19th nationally in rebounding margin (7th from a major conference), outrebounding opponents by 6.5 rpg. Arizona outrebounded their opponent over 70% of the time and was outrebounded by more than 5 just once.
We can expect to see more of the same next year. In fact, Arizona could easily improve their rebounding. With an increase in production from Tarczewski on the glass and increasing activity and development from Ashley, I expect to see a huge defensive leap for our returning stars. Add in Aaron Gordon, who recently led Team USA in the U19 league in rebounding, and you have a talented, large front court that will snatch up every ball that comes their way. That’s also not counting Hollis-Jefferson’s input, who was 3rd during EYBL play in 2012 in rebounding at 8.2rpg. His long reach, defensive mentality, and high octane motor allow him to be lethal on the glass.
Another reason that the rebounding will improve is based on the guys we’ll have on the floor. Here’s a visual of the relative rebounding rates of our players from last year, and how many minutes they were spending on the court.
The take away here is that minutes will increase for our best rebounders, and we will have more prolific rebounders on the court at the 3 slot for much of the game. Arizona should be an even better rebounding team than last year, when they were one of the nation’s elite.
On defense, Arizona may easily have one of the best teams in the nation at forcing TOs next year. We start with Nick Johnson who finished 3rd in steals in the PAC-12 last year and 35th nationally. Johnson accounted for 30% of the team’s steals (1.9).
Arizona will mix in TJ McConnell who finished 3rd nationally in steals during his sophomore year at Duquesne (2.8), as well as defensive juggernaut, Rondae Hollis Jefferson, and defensive hustler, Aaron Gordon. We’re looking at a dynamic combination of guys who will attack the ball and force numerous turnovers.
However, although the personnel are in place, it will be interesting to see how Arizona performs in the net steals category. In Miller’s 9 seasons as a head coach, his signature Pack Line defense has failed to break into the top 150 nationally in steals per game. Last year, Johnson led Arizona to Miller’s highest ranking by far at 163.
Miller’s other 8 years have consistently produced teams ranking around 275th in SPG. Although that may not be especially encouraging, I look for Arizona’s newcomers to help Johnson on defense. If they are able to add 2+ SPG, Arizona’s complexion on defense will change dramatically. That small change would put Arizona in the top 25 in steals and would lead to easy buckets on offense on a team that will be itching to get out in transition.
In the Clutch
While Arizona had an excellent defensive team last year, what was most impressive was their performance in tight situations. The graphic below gives an indication of just how effective Arizona’s defense was in critical situations.
What this shows is a team that could really focus and become especially lethal when it set its mind to the task. This can often be a backhanded compliment to talented teams who may have a tendency to relax during parts of games. While it may be tough to completely get away from mid-game slouches, Arizona will certainly continue to be most dangerous when they are dialed in. When the pressure is on, expect Arizona to play its best defense.