Arizona’s Defense Isn’t Very Good and It Might Not Matter

Posted by Adam Butler on December 21st, 2017

Following a week that included wins against Texas A&M and Alabama — quality wins no matter the program — college basketball’s own Jon Rothstein noted the “fact” that Arizona would be a one-loss team had it not been for Rawle Alkins’ absence (broken foot) in those games. Read the tweet. Alkins’ presence would have meant that the sky would not seemingly be falling and all would be well in the desert. First of all, to find that tweet, one has to dig through a lot of tweets — Rothstein tweets a lot and he tweets redundantly. Secondly, we do like to be rooted in fact and the Wildcats are – in fact – a three loss team re-incorporating a starter among an underperforming freshman class (aside from the magnificent Deandre Ayton). Furthermore, through 12 games, this is easily the worst defense that Sean Miller has coached (or at least since advanced defensive statistics have been available on basketball-reference.com). The Wildcats are sitting at an unadjusted defensive efficiency of 1.02 points per possession and the next worse mark for a Miller team through 12 games was during his second season in Tucson (2011-12) — 0.96 PPP. That team was 8-4 at the same point in the season and of course represents the last time Arizona missed the NCAA Tournament.

DeAndre Ayton Has Been a Lone Bright Spot for Arizona This Season (USA Today Images)

At 9-3, the fact is that this could be the worst Miller defense since perhaps his first year in Tucson (2009-10 – 0.995 PPP). That team went 16-15 and had zero players (immediately) drafted from it. This team, however, has three projected NBA Draft picks, a beleaguered point. And beyond the facts there are questions like “can this defense get better?” The short answer has to be “yes,” right? Miller has coached only four worse defenses (by adjusted defensive efficiency) and the assumption is that this year’s team will naturally improve with more experience. A logical conclusion. Defensive trends, however, typically suggest a team’s efficiency worsens as the season progresses. This would make sense as, in the case of an Arizona, their defensive numbers should be more impressive against a lesser, pre-Pac schedule. It would also make sense, however, to expect to see less of a floundering Ayton or a scrambling Parker Jackson-Cartwright as we get into games 20, 21 and beyond.

This Arizona team won’t soon – or ever – be confused with the 2014 or 2015 Wildcats. Those teams were walls, principled and disciplined in the pack-line defense. Their opponents took more than 40 percent of their shots from the mid-range and earned fewer than 0.90 points per possession. The 2018 version of the pack-line is yielding 30 percent from the mid-range and a Miller-era high of 37 percent of shots at the rim. Stylistically, this team isn’t even on the same planet as those two defensive juggernauts. But even mentioning those defenses in the same breath is to compare apples and oranges. It may be irrelevant. And while these facts suggest Arizona is indeed an average defensive team, they are also, in fact, a phenomenal offensive team and, as Rothstein reminded us, are adding an NBA caliber wing in Alkins. So today the sky isn’t falling; the Wildcats are once again winning (undefeated in the United States!); and their identity remains in its infancy. An identity that’s become increasingly difficult to forecast.

Adam Butler (32 Posts)


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