Spirits are high in Wildcat country as Arizona may be embarking on the most exciting year of college basketball in the past decade. One of the story lines to watch this year will undeniably be the defense, which coach Sean Miller has preached since he stepped on campus four seasons ago. With an abundance of defensively focused players, this year should be special considering Miller’s defensive philosophy.
In a recent press conference, Miller was quoted saying “Trapping and pressuring the ball, maybe even changing defenses some, is something we’ve looked at all summer and again it’s always about putting your talent in the best position to be successful.”
I’d like to take a moment to investigate some of the defensive options Arizona may look at and what that means for the team this year.
The defense that Miller is most known for teaching is the pack-line defense. It is far from a traditional defense and is fairly complex, but utilizes advantages found in both zone and more traditional man-to-man schemes. It has been heavily theorized that a pack-line defense, similar to other man-to-man schemes, can be an effective tool in limiting opponent’s three point shooting. Additionally, a pack-line defense can be very effective at disrupting easy drives to the basket and limiting effective interior production, similar to many zone defenses.
In fact, as Miller has had time to implement his system, Arizona has successfully improved in multiple statistical categories, as you can see in the graphs below.
However, one weakness of the defensive system is a lack of disrupting passing lanes and forcing opponents to make mistakes. With the talent that Miller has this year, he can has the flexibility to play more variations of the defense that allow for more disruption.
Playing the Passing Lanes
To successfully incorporate the players’ best attributes, watch for Arizona to extend the pack-line and capitalize on more risk-reward plays. For this to work successfully, ball pressure will be the key.
This hasn’t been a viable option for Arizona in past seasons when Arizona lacked a full stable of perimeter players capable of both applying ball pressure and walking the fine line between being out of place and successfully snatching up an errant pass on the wings.
Arizona’s perimeter defense will likely be led by TJ McConnell, Nick Johnson, and Aaron Gordon with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Jordin Mayes coming off the bench. This back court will be an absolute terror on defense. Miller could choose to extend their defensive position and capitalize on an embarrassment of riches.
If you take the three primary guards for next season and spread out their average steals per game over the 80 available minutes at the 2 guard slots, they would average 5.3 spg. The national average for a whole teams last year was 6.7 spg.
Projecting the impact from the two freshmen, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, is also intriguing. Gordon averaged 2.0 spg during his U19 USA basketball trip (2.1 steals per 20 minutes) and has garnered the reputation of a persistent defender.
Meanwhile, Hollis-Jefferson has been called a ball-hawk and provides a skill set for Arizona that hasn’t been seen in a long while. His astounding 7’1″ wingspan and lateral quickness will translate quickly on the defensive end at the college level. There’s no doubt he’ll make a tremendous impact guarding just about any perimeter player.
Putting this recipe together, Arizona can expect to see a dramatic increase in steals and a general disruption of the opponent’s offense. This will be a refreshing change from the hunker-down and let them come to us philosophy, where just last year Arizona opponents were slowed down to the 294th longest length of possession according to kenpom.com. A more aggressive defense will certainly be fun to watch.
Another way that Miller will successfully utilize his talent will be by pressuring the opponents on inbounds plays.
I expected the numbers to show how effective Arizona has been out of time outs, to show that by saving the use of pressure defense, Miller was able to increase its effectiveness. We could all point to games like Florida, Colorado, and San Diego St to show how well we closed out games with pressure defense.
However, looking into the data, I found conflicting results. Below are two charts showing what happened on opponents’ possessions out of a timeout, when the game was within 5 points (not counting the first 20 total points scored). To compare, the chart on the right shows what happened during an average possession for Arizona opponents.
So Arizona opponents actually shot 11% better on field goals after timeouts. That’s pretty staggering. However, Arizona also forced nearly 55% more turn overs than during the average possession.
So what the data tells us is this: Miller likes to use a risk-reward type of system out of time outs. He’s already implemented this well, but maybe lacked the personnel to quickly adjust when a turnover was not successfully accomplished. Expect Arizona to continue to pressure the ball on inbounds plays, but also expect a significant increase in effectiveness.
There is no doubt that Arizona will develop its defense next season. However, Arizona’s defensive identity will be greatly affected by how the personnel on the perimeter play as a unit. If they coalesce, Miller will have a lot of options and the result will likely be favorable for Arizona fans.
Miller has also expressed an interest in showing different looks. The possibilities with the group of players will be dynamic. This will definitely be an interesting aspect of the team to watch this season.