Wildcats playing stifling defense through a dozen games

2013-12-20T00:01:00Z 2013-12-20T15:15:06Z Wildcats playing stifling defense through a dozen gamesGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Lute Olson’s No. 1-ranked basketball teams were visual. Sean Miller’s No.  1-ranked Arizona Wildcats are invasive.

This is no knockoff No. 1. This is an entirely new way of basketball at Arizona.

Do you realize the Wildcats are limiting opponents to 58.7 points per game? That’s the fewest points UA opponents have averaged since 1951.

And that’s not all. UA opponents are shooting .372 from the field. That’s the lowest percentage since 1957.

You’ll have to check the math here, but isn’t that more than 50 years?

No wonder Miller had the word ATTACK stitched to the back of his player’s warm-up jerseys.

Here’s another way to look at it: At the end of business Thursday, after Arizona smothered Southern 69-43, the Wildcats had established a new way of winning at precisely the time the Pac-12 fronted itself as the NCAA’s leading shooting/scoring league.

Incredibly, through Wednesday, the nation’s four leading shooting teams were all from the Pac-12.

1. UCLA .543.

2. Oregon State .537.

3. Utah .535.

4. Oregon .526.

Arizona hasn’t been a follow-the-leader type of basketball program, and nothing has changed. In its climb to No. 1, the Wildcats have exhibited that there’s more than one way to win at the highest levels.

For the first time ever, the Pac-12 has six teams averaging more than 80 points a game. The old walk-it-up league has become a run-and-shoot league.

Oregon is averaging 89.3. UCLA is at 88 Utah 85. Even ASU coach Herb Sendek, a shot-clock-killer of the first order, has a team that is averaging 80 points a game this year.

This qualifies as news because Arizona, the nation’s No.1 team and forever the up-tempo trend-setter of Pac-12 basketball, is eighth in the league in scoring (76.1) and nobody is complaining.

Points don’t matter as much in college basketball when the Other Guy is shooting .372 and scoring 58.7 points a game. But the most mind-shaking number of all those posted by Miller’s fifth Arizona team could be this one:

The Wildcats have an edge of 13.5 rebounds per game. Nobody does that. It is the widest margin at Arizona since 1951, and the most in the Pac-12 since Bill Walton played at UCLA in 1972, when it was just the Pac-8.

A bit of that was modified on Thursday because the Wildcats played without Kaleb Tarczewski, hobbled by ankle woes.

“It’s interesting to watch our team without Kaleb and see some of the things that are easy to take for granted, size-wise, around the basket,” said Miller. “We are one of the best teams in the country (rebounding) but we weren’t as able to do it tonight because we weren’t as big.”

These numbers aren’t born of poor opposition, either. The Wildcats have played Duke, Michigan and San Diego State away from McKale Center. Once Tarczewski returns, the statistics are likely to become less formidable during the conference season, but not by that much.

A dozen games is a reliable sample.

All college basketball teams accumulate statistics the way big-league hitters drive-up their numbers: by bashing the opponent’s No. 4 and No. 5 starters. That’s what the Wildcats did Thursday against Southern. After a third of the season, in baseball and basketball, you can project similar numbers to the end.

What it means is, Arizona isn’t apt to get swallowed up somewhere in February or March when it doesn’t shoot well. When Zeus returns, it’s likely to make the Other Guy shoot worse.

Thursday’s only troublesome issue was that Aaron Gordon missed six of his 10 free throw attempts. That means he is shooting .438 on the year, or 25 for 57.

He said he made 85 of 100 foul shots before the game and that “I feel like my mechanics are good. I’m not worried about it.” Miller echoed those comments.

Those who seem to worry most about Gordon’s .438 percentage are the people in the seats, many of whom have now initiated a pre-shot cheer in attempt to show their support. It is awkward.

Some people just aren’t good foul-shooters. Duke’s Miles Plumlee, now with the Phoenix Suns, is shooting .481. Former Washington center Aziz N’Diaye shot .413 in his Huskies career.

One bit of irony is that UA graduate assistant coach Joseph Blair is among those who can help ease Gordon’s psyche.

Blair shot .435 from the line as an Arizona sophomore, and then followed it with .465 and .400 as a senior. Only center Gene Edgerson, who shot. 404 in 1997, has been worse over the course of a season dating to all-conference forward Ernie McCray’s .512 in 1959.

The message? Blair and Edgerson both played on Final Four teams when shooting Gordon-type free-throw percentages.

When you play defense and rebound as well as the Wildcats – when you score 21 points as Gordon did Thursday – you don’t lose sleep over a few missed free throws.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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