Steve Kerr still holds the NCAA single-season record for three-point percentage, helping the Arizona Wildcats reach the 1988 Final Four by hitting 57.3 percent of them.
But as he and the current Wildcats know all too well, shooting can come and go.
Arizona shot just 21.1 percent from three-point range collectively during its three regular-season losses, and the Wildcats lost the Pac-12 Tournament final last Saturday when their free-throw shooting went kablooey (37.5 percent) against UCLA.
Kerr, meanwhile, has kicked himself for years for shooting 2 of 12 from beyond the arc in UA’s 1988 national semifinal loss to Oklahoma.
But through a career as an NBA player and general manager — and now an NBA and college television analyst — Kerr also knows this: Shooting can leave you, but good defense often doesn’t.
It can be a reliable foundation. And the Wildcats have the nation’s most efficient defense, allowing opponents to score an average of just 86.1 points per 100 possessions.
That defense is a major reason why Arizona is 30-4 and the No. 1 seed in the West Region, and why Kerr says they can make a long NCAA tournament run this season.
“I think you’re less susceptible when you know what you’re going to get defensively,” said Kerr, who will work TBS’s inaugural coverage of the Final Four this season. “You never know when a team like Oregon can get hot and make 10 threes, but I think historically the favorites that lose often are not great defensive teams and great rebound teams. They’re more vulnerable in those areas.”
Oregon hit 10 of 19 threes on March 8 in its 64-57 win over Arizona, which Kerr said probably served as a reminder of how important it is to close out.
That appeared to be the case. In their next game, a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal game against Utah, the Wildcats kept the Utes to just 2 of 10 threes. A day after that, Colorado was 4 for 8 from three-point range, but shot just 29.4 percent overall.
In UA’s third Pac-12 Tournament game, UCLA hit just 4 of 12 from three-point range, though one of them was a go-ahead dagger from Jordan Adams with 45 seconds left.
Overall, the Wildcats rank 44th nationally in three-point percentage defense, allowing only 31.4 percent.
That should be helpful on Friday in an NCAA tournament opener against a Weber State team that takes three-pointers on 37 percent of its shots, and hits those 39.3 percent of the time.
“We’re really good on defense, and that can’t change,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “We have to be real good on defense on Friday. We’re the best defense that’s been at Arizona in a long, long time.”
The stats back Miller’s words up. Not only do the Wildcats lead the nation in defensive efficiency overall, but they are on track to put up the best field-goal percentage defense overall (38.1) since 1956-57, when UA’s Border Conference and other opponents hit just 36.2 percent.
If there’s any debate, maybe it’s over whether UA’s defense this season has been able to compensate without forward Brandon Ashley, who was lost for the season on Feb. 1 at Cal.
Until that game, UA had held Pac-12 opponents to a chilling 37.2 percent from the field and 28.9 percent overall.
“It was just obscene, really,” Kerr said. “With (Kaleb) Tarczewski, (Aaron) Gordon, and Ashley, and (Rondae) Jefferson off the bench, they had the wingspan and the range to close out (on the perimeter) and protect the rim.
“They had all those guys, and then at the point of attack you had (Nick) Johnson and (T.J.) McConnell, who can really pressure the ball.”
But the Wildcats have had their moments without Ashley, too, especially last week. In three Pac-12 Tournament games, UA gave up just 36.0 percent shooting overall and 33.3 percent three-point shooting.
It was the kind of dominating performance, resulting from a mentality that Miller is hoping to carry forward.
“I hope we can feel that same way in the tournament,” he said. “If that leaves us, we won’t be in the tournament very long.”