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Arizona basketball: Freshmen, athleticism may let UA bolster 'D'

2013-08-11T00:00:00Z 2014-08-01T11:39:17Z Arizona basketball: Freshmen, athleticism may let UA bolster 'D'Bruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 11, 2013 12:00 am  • 

After watching two months of limited summer workouts, Arizona coach Sean Miller became tempted to add some full-court pressure and trapping to his defense.

Actually, he probably didn't even need to see that much.

Just watching freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tie his shoe probably would have done the trick.

"He has extremely long arms," Miller said last week, as the Wildcats wrapped up summertime workouts.

"His wingspan is more than seven feet and he really uses that on the defensive end."

Miller said he's also been impressed defensively with well-regarded freshman forward Aaron Gordon, and has a number of improving defenders returning this season, even without the hard-nosed Kevin Parrom and Solomon Hill around.

So he's thinking about tweaking his man-to-man defense, which has generally improved steadily since Miller's arrival in 2009 but struggled at times last season.

"I believe in man-to-man - that will always be the primary defense that you play - but there are a lot of different things you can do within man-to-man," Miller said. "Using our athleticism is something I would be foolish not to take advantage of and I think our team has a lot of ability on defense.

"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."

The Wildcats kept opponents to an average of 66.3 points in Pac-12 games last season but finished last in three-point percentage by allowing an average of 37.7 percent during conference play.

But this time, Arizona should have players at every position who can break down an opposing offense, with full-court pressure or in a half-court man-to-man. Here's a look at the players:

Point guard

• Who: T.J. McConnell, junior, 6-1, 190

• Why: McConnell earned a spot on the Atlantic 10's all defensive team in 2011-12, when he averaged 2.8 steals a game, the third highest total in Division I. During last season's NCAA tournament, the Wildcats compared him to Ohio State's Aaron Craft on both sides of the ball.

• Miller said it: "T.J. was one of the best players in the nation his freshman and sophomore years at getting steals."

Shooting guard

• Who: Nick Johnson, junior, 6-3, 200

• Why: The athletic Johnson grew as a defender last season to the point where he was regularly assigned to take on an opponent's top perimeter player, while backup combo guard Jordin Mayes also began to embrace a defensive role in 2012-13. Miller said last week he believes Johnson will be an all-Pac-12 player this season.

• Miller said it: "One guy I've really been impressed with is Nick Johnson … where he is defensively, where he is maturity-wise, (with) his ability to shoot and play with confidence and do so many things for our team."

Small forward

• Who: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, freshman, 6-7, 205

• Why: Hollis-Jefferson may come off the bench but will impact the defense at a number of positions with his length and intensity, with a 7-foot wingspan that allows him to play bigger than his size.

• Miller said it: "No question he's very talented on defense. He's got really long arms and great quickness."

Power forward

• Who: Aaron Gordon, freshman, 6-8, 210

• Why: Gordon is expected to start at small forward, but he can shift over to power forward, in large part because his physical game and relentless intensity suggests he can handle it defensively.

• Miller said it: "A lot of times you can't play a guy at two positions because he can't make the adjustment on defense. On offense he's OK, but to ask him to guard a perimeter player versus a big man - that's a much different dynamic. With Aaron, that's his strength. He's already answered that on defense."

Center

• Who: Kaleb Tarczewski, sophomore, 7-0, 260

• Why: The New Englander's big body isn't just handy for scoring around the basket. He also causes opponents to think twice about getting there. In addition, forward Brandon Ashley's defense improved late last season and junior transfer Matt Korcheck brings another physical touch to the post.

• Miller said it: "Kaleb Tarczewski is somebody people don't talk a lot about as a defender. But if you look at how he played defense a year ago, that was one of the reasons we had such a good season. Brandon and him and Grant (Jerrett, who departed as a freshman) did a good job a year ago. What we hope is Kaleb progresses to be even better as a sophomore."

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