Notice anything familiar about Arizona’s four closely contested basketball games this season?
65-63, Michigan State, win.
69-65, Butler, loss.
69-62, Gonzaga, loss.
67-63, Texas A&M, win.
In those four games, none played at McKale Center, Arizona had 68, 67, 65 and 63 possessions. Compare that to UCLA, the flavor of the month in college basketball, which has had as many as 91 possessions in a game this season.
Such is Sean Miller basketball: a slow and purposeful grind that rarely fails to put a knot in your stomach (or his). The Wildcats average 67 possessions per game, which is No. 276 in the NCAA.
Those four games have been so much different yet so much the same, much like Saturday’s victory over Texas A&M when the Wildcats went on a 15-0 run and, in turn, gave up an 18-0 A&M run. The Wildcats trailed Gonzaga 38-24 yet rallied to make it close.
No wonder the coach sweats through his shirt.
If we have learned anything through the season’s first dozen games, it is this:
Arizona is not a good 3-point shooting team in times of crisis. The Wildcats are 7 for 34 (or 21 percent) against the Zags, Butler and A&M. Yet in carefree finishes against Missouri, UC Irvine and Texas Southern, the Wildcats were 29 for 55 on 3-pointers (or 53 percent).
If Arizona is to finish within range of UCLA and Oregon in the Pac-12, it will require Dusan Ristic and Lauri Markkanen to routinely do what they did against Texas A&M: combine for 35 points and make more foul shots than the other guy.
In those games against Michigan State, Gonzaga, Butler and A&M, the Wildcats outscored their opponents 71-46 from the foul line. Had Miller’s get-to-the-line system not worked, Arizona would’ve lost all four games.
It’s impossible to estimate how good (or not) the Wildcats can be until Allonzo Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright return. Arizona’s nonconference schedule is ranked 163rd overall by Kenpom.com and there’s no telling how the paper-thin Wildcats will hold up when they open conference play Dec. 30 at Cal.
A seven-man rotation isn’t likely to survive many true road settings even against nonranked teams like Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Arizona State. I suspect that Texas A&M wouldn’t finish in the first division of the Pac-12, and maybe the top eight.
The UA last regularly played a seven-man rotation in 1972-73, the first year McKale Center opened. It has many similarities to the 2016-17 Wildcats.
Arizona lost point guard Jim Rappis after only three starts and was thereafter limited to a lineup in which the three-leading scorers were all freshmen: Coniel Norman, Eric Money and Al Fleming. Sound familiar? Freshmen Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are Arizona’s three-leading scorers today.
That threesome was exceptional; all played in the NBA. But they were worn down as the season progressed and even though the UA finished 16-10, the first Wildcat team to play in McKale was outscored over the year, 81.5 to 81.2 per game.
The big difference was style of play; the first McKale Center team didn’t often play 67-63 games. They had a three-game streak of 110-105, 101-95 and 100-94 games.
Either way, then and now, it still put a knot in your stomach.