Three Thoughts on Arizona’s Win at MichiganPosted by AMurawa on December 15th, 2013
Imagine this scenario: you’re one of the youngest teams in the nation. You’ve just assumed the number one spot in the polls, and the following weekend, you’re hearding across country to play the equivalent of a 9:00 AM game at the home of the team that was the runner-up for the national championship last year. An opponent that, while talented, has underachieved so far this season despite the presence of one of the best X-and-O coaches in the nation. Worse yet, early in the second half, you look up and figure out you’ve got a 13-point deficit in front of you. Combine all of those factors together and you’ve got the makings of a brief stay at the #1 spot, right? You could easily imagine getting run out of that gym, yes? Instead, Arizona went to Ann Arbor, took a really good shot from Michigan, then rededicated itself to exploiting its advantages and proved again that, not only is this a team that is very much worthy of its current ranking, but it is a team that will likely be within shouting distance of this ranking for the rest of the year. Barring a major surprise, these Wildcats will likely be 15-0 when they head to UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on January 9. In light of all of this, let’s take a look at a few things we learned about Arizona during its big comeback win on Saturday.
- There’s just under two minutes left. Arizona is down a point. Sean Miller calls a timeout and what happened from there on answered any questions we might have had about who the go-to guys are on this Wildcats team. On the first possession, the Wildcats get the ball to Nick Johnson with Aaron Gordon setting a screen to get Johnson on the same side of the court as Brandon Ashley, where Ashley sets a pick and rolls down the baseline. Johnson then finds him there and lets him go to work; he slides past three Wolverine defenders, including his man Mitch McGary, for a nice bucket and the lead. The next time down, after T.J. McConnell recovered his own miss, Johnson backed things out, settled his team down, and again set up a two-man game for himself and Ashley, waving freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson off before driving, picking up a (questionable) foul and getting to the line where he made two free throws to give his squad a lead it would never relinquish. While freshmen Gordon and Jefferson are hyper-talented players, Johnson and Ashley are the more complete players, especially considering the fact that if either of them gets sent to the free throw line in a close game, Wildcat fans will rightly be confident. But even without that consideration, Johnson and Ashley offer more versatility in the half-court with an ability to take their opponents off the bounce or hit the jumper. Johnson and Ashley may not be the first guys you think of when you think of Arizona this season, but they’re Miller’s go-to guys when it counts.
- The Wildcats have earned their #1 ranking, but they’re not without weaknesses. In the middle of the second half, one of those weaknesses came roaring back when center Kaleb Tarczewski came down from a jump on to the foot of Michigan’s Jon Horford, then crumpled to the ground writhing in pain. Tarczewski left briefly, returned briefly, and then was largely absent the remainder of the game. It looks like he avoided serious injury, but you do have to remember that Miller has largely committed himself to a seven-man rotation. There are three guys in the frontcourt, three guys in the backcourt, and swingman Hollis-Jefferson. If any one of those guys goes down, there is some trouble a-brewing.
- While Tarczewski is a very talented seven-footer that any team in the country would love to have, the time the Wildcats spent with him on the bench late reinforced the perception that their best lineup is McConnell, Johnson, Jefferson, Gordon and Ashley. That lineup is the one that is most versatile defensively (it can literally switch every screen one through five), and has the most offensive punch. While Gordon is doing a fine job in his first year playing the three, he is at his best at the four where he usually will have an athletic advantage over anybody else in that position. He can beat most fours off the bounce with ease, and is big enough to score over those trees standing inside. And, with Zeus removed from his station at the post, it opens up the lane for Gordon (and Ashley and Johnson and Jefferson for that matter) to attack the rim. Now, Zeus is still going to play a huge role for this team and, make no mistake, he is a terrific asset (14 points, nine boards against Michigan and a 73 percent free throw shooting on the year), but down the stretch in tight games, the Wildcats may be better off with him watching the action. Which mostly means that the ‘Cats have an embarrassment of riches.