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Arizona basketball: Wildcats showed us they are still elite defensively

When the 'Cats turn on the defense, few teams can match their ability.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Miller's Arizona Wildcats are known nationally for their lock down, stingy, and in-your-face man-to-man defense. It's become the team's identity, even forcing gifted scorers to the bench (or other schools) because their defensive skills did not live up to Miller's expectations.

As a team, they have finished in the top three the past two seasons including being the nation's top ranked defense in 2014 and its third best in 2015. Though U of A fans would be hard-pressed to believe this, the 'Cats are continuing their statistical dominance this season.

Yes, you read that right.

Arizona is currently the fifth-rated defense in the nation.

*I'll give you a second to digest that*

And yes, that does include the 44 point outburst from Santa Clara's Jared Brownridge and a tantalizing performance down the stretch via Providence's Kris Dunn. It also includes Kyle Wiltjer's 33 point spectacle on Saturday.

Up to the start of the game versus Gonzaga, I wouldn't have believed the Wildcats' defense was top 20 and then by the half in Spokane, probably not even top 50.

But then things changed.

After seeing the Bulldogs do pretty much everything they wanted on offense, to a tune of 58% shooting, Sean Miller seems to have given one hell of a halftime speech.

In the final 20 minutes, though, the trademark Sean Miller defense made its first appearance of the season. Arizona held Gonzaga to a pitiful 31% shooting, including 1/7 from behind the arc.

More impressively, they forced Mark Few's squad into difficult and contested shots throughout the second half, holding them to just seven points over the final 11:25. During that stretch, the Zags missed 12 of 13 shots.

I think most of us were pretty surprised by the lackluster first half Arizona gave us, even with the sub par showing in Anaheim the weekend prior.

On the flip side though, you could argue for the last five years or so, it has also been a classic Arizona team to start slow and then beat the opposition into submission in the second half with a deeper bench and more athletic players.

In other words, we got the full Arizona basketball experience Saturday afternoon.

With a much more talented and versatile backcourt, Arizona's defensive pressure caused Gonzaga to commit 16 turnovers, half of which were unforced.

As the saying goes, the best offense is a good defense. Truer words weren't said about this game.

For what seemed like the entire second half, GU was put into uncomfortable positions on the offensive side by a smothering Wildcat defense that turned those 16 turnovers into 12 points -- double what Gonzaga got from Arizona.

If it weren't for the the tough-nosed, 'Sean Miller without his jacket on' defense, Arizona doesn't fly out of Spokane with many smiles. While fans might be pleased by their performance, the team showed themselves their true potential and that is the biggest win you can get.

As the season continues into the new year, will this be the game we look back on and say it was when Arizona got its swagger back?

Only time will tell, but if history is to be our judge, this team has barely scratched its potential and the long march towards March has just begun.

Arizona takes on Fresno State at the McKale Center, Wednesday evening, at 7pm local time. The game is being broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.