We are at the midway point in Pac-12 play and the ninth-ranked Arizona Wildcats are sitting at 18-4 overall and 8-1 in the conference, good enough for first place by half a game above the USC Trojans.
The Wildcats head to the Pacific Northwest this weekend to take on Washington State and Washington, but before that let’s review what we know about this Arizona team so far.
They have a lot of “peaks and valleys”
This Arizona team is characterized by its peaks and valleys. At least those are the terms Sean Miller used Monday. Basically, it is another of way of saying they are extremely inconsistent.
We saw the lowest valley in the Bahamas when the Wildcats lost three games in three days.
But they have won 15 of 16 since. Only Purdue is playing better basketball (at least from a win-loss perspective).
Yet, in so many of those wins — vs. Alabama, vs. ASU, at/vs. Utah, vs. Colorado, vs. Oregon, vs. Oregon State, at Stanford — Arizona led by double digits and appeared on track to win convincingly only to let the lead slip away and have to grind out a victory in the last few minutes of regulation.
The good news is Arizona is winning those close games by playing well in those last few minutes — winning the “10th war” as they call it.
That is a good trait to have, and can partly be attributed to the team’s experience. Arizona starts two seniors and a junior.
The bad news is taking every game down to the wire leaves Arizona prone to letdown losses. During Arizona’s current six-game winning streak, five victories were decided by nine points or less.
Miller called them “coin-flip” games.
If Dusan Ristic’s 3s don’t fall against Utah or Allonzo Trier doesn’t get hot down the stretch against Oregon, Arizona could have easily taken an L. And frankly, those are games it probably should have won painlessly.
“This team this year, it’s having these valleys and these peaks,” Miller said. “Our peaks are great. There’s times when we’re playing as well as any team can possibly play. But my hope is with continued practice, development, playing more games, that the valleys are less and even the peaks less. That we are just more consistent for 40 minutes.
“Because no question there are segments in games that really take a 10-point lead and make it a tie game. And you have to give the opponent credit, they’re good teams and they’re getting better and doing a good job, but sometimes we certainly have a lot to do with that.
“Defensively, when we sub, we shoot ourselves in the foot so to speak and allow the other team to have 6-0 runs that can be prevented with concentration, guys doing a better job on defense.
“Sometimes it’s on offense when we sub where we have turnovers. To just blame the guys who don’t play all the time or start would be foolish. It is with the starting five where we played in peaks and valleys. For a portion of our early season, not understanding how hard we have to play, especially on defense. We’re better in that area and moving the ball against different defenses — not holding it.
“We turn the ball over a little bit more this year than we’ve done the past couple years, but it’s really bizarre because we’ve had a game, against Colorado for example, where we’ve had five turnovers. You play a Pac-12 game with five turnovers, that is a heck of a job. We could have five turnovers in the first four minutes sometimes, and then it can go away.”
It’s mind-boggling, for sure.
Arizona’s offense has regressed, but is still excellent
Arizona ranks 13th in the country in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, which is obviously solid.
But the Wildcats were top-five for a while there, and have regressed a bit since conference started.
I would guess that is because nearly every team has played zone against Arizona. Miller estimates 80 percent of the league uses zone, and not necessarily just when they are playing the Wildcats.
Sometimes Arizona handles zone really well — like this past Saturday when it shot 70 percent in the first half against Utah and forced it to switch to man. But other times, like vs. Oregon State, the offense stalls and gets discombobulated.
Zone defenses are often seen as Arizona’s Achilles’ heel, but mostly it handles them pretty well. That said, this Saturday at Washington should be a good test for the Wildcats. The Huskies might have the best zone defense in the Pac-12.
Whether or not Rawle Alkins plays could be paramount.
“Offensively, we can always get better,” Miller said. “We’re seeing a lot of different types of zones. Guys are loading up against our big guys, trying to do different things against Allonzo. But I think all those things are easier to do when Rawle (Alkins) doesn’t play in a game.”
Arizona’s strengths on offense are fairly clear. It has four guys who can score efficiently in double figures in any game, plus a sharpshooting, high-assist-low-turnover point guard in Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
Not to mention two of those four scorers — Trier and Deandre Ayton — are as efficient as anybody in the country and can straight up win games for Arizona. And lately Ristic has been that type of player, too.
Arizona is also a terrific shooting team from all three levels of the court. It shoots 57 percent on 2-pointers (13th-best in the country), 39 percent on 3s (30th), and 78 percent from the charity stripe (11th).
Being able to score in multiple ways helps mitigate nights when, say, the 3s aren’t falling or Arizona is facing a menacing rim-protector.
Plus, making a high percentage of free throws gives UA an edge in games decided by only a few points.
But there are three things that Arizona isn’t so great at on offense — taking care of the ball, rebounding, and bench scoring.
As Miller mentioned above, that first weakness isn’t always true. Sometimes Arizona is fantastic at avoiding turnovers like that Colorado game where they only had five. Or against Stanford when they only had 10.
But they can just as easily have a game like Saturday’s vs. Utah where they commit 15 turnovers. They had 17 turnovers against Oregon, and 19 against Cal.
Altogether, Arizona turns the ball over roughly 18 percent of the time, which ranks 94th in the country. The only stat Arizona ranks worse offensively in is rebounding (114th).
But the offensive rebounding stat isn’t quite as concerning because the Wildcats are significantly better at crashing the boards when Alkins plays.
For instance, Arizona had an offensive rebounding rate of 12.5 against Colorado and 10.0 without Alkins, respectively, this past weekend.
But when the Wildcats faced those schools with Alkins in the lineup earlier in the year, their offensive rebounding rate was 35.6 and 42.5.
Among UA’s wings, Alkins has by far the highest offensive rebounding rate (8.4) — Emmanuel Akot is at 3.8, Dylan Smith is at 2.9, Brandon Randolph is at 1.9, and Allonzo Trier is at 1.6.
So take Alkins out, replace him with one those guys, and obviously Arizona won’t be grabbing as many offensive boards.
And then there’s the bench scoring which does not look a problem that can be solved.
The UA bench has been outscored in every Pac-12 game except one this year, and by an unhealthy margin (159-76).
Arizona was supposed to have a plethora of scorers this season but, aside from Ayton, its highly-touted freshman class has not panned out.
A couple made shots here and there are all you can really expect from the bench unit, though Arizona’s starting five probably has enough firepower that it can live without a ton of help on that end of the floor.
That said, the bench does need to rebound and defend adequately, otherwise it’s a complete liability. The starting five is definitely not good enough defensively to overcome that.
“The more we can get value from those guys, confidence off the bench, I also think that will be a big part of the second half of our season here,” Miller said.
The defense is far from where it needs to be
Arizona’s defense was sort of a weakness last season when it ranked 29th in efficiency.
This year’s defense? It ranks 97th. That’s not a weakness, that’s death.
Consider: no team has ever won a national championship with a defense ranking outside the top 18, per KenPom.
And the team that had the No. 18 defense was 2008-09 North Carolina when it overwhelmingly had the No. 1 offense in the country.
That team was an outlier. Most teams that win a national title have top-10 defenses.
So to say Arizona has to improve on that side of the ball is a massive understatement.
Teams are shooting .431/.359/.734 against the Wildcats this season. Two of those percentages are concerning — the last two.
The Wildcats are 225th (of 351) in opponent 3-point percentage. To compound, teams get roughly 30 percent of their points from that distance against Arizona, which ranks 230th (from UA’s perspective) in the country.
In other words, teams are shooting a lot of 3s against Arizona and making a lot of them which is clearly a recipe for disaster. And it explains how teams are able to erase UA’s double-digit leads so often.
That teams shoot 73.4 percent from the free throw line against Arizona is bad — that ranks 281st from a defensive perspective — but that isn’t exactly something it can control.
In fact, one could argue that Arizona’s defense will improve simply because that high of a free-throw percentage might be a product of misfortune and not something that is sustainable.
But what the Wildcats can control (at least to some degree) is how much they put other teams at the line. And right now they aren’t doing a good job defending without fouling.
Opposing teams have a free-throw rate — free throw attempts per field goal attempt — of 34.2 which ranks 202nd in college basketball (from a defensive standpoint).
So it’s similar to UA’s 3-point defense — teams are getting to the line frequently and are converting their opportunities at a high rate.
“We foul way too much and I think we’re looking at ways and areas, sometimes it’s a certain player to do that better, not foul,” Miller said.
“Fouling kills your defense. Our 3-point field goal defense, just giving up 3s, 3-point attempts, that’s something we did really well against Utah. We want to be able to do that because if you’re a team that fouls, you’re a team that gives us 3-point shots, our defense isn’t really built to turn you over, you’re going to have those games where you don’t defend very well and we’ve had quite a few of those.”
Miller is right about the turnovers thing — Arizona ranks 229th in defensive turnover percentage — but the Wildcats have never really been great at forcing them under him because the pack-line defense is a conservative approach.
Forcing turnovers would help, but the 3-point defense and inability to defend without fouling is a much greater concern.
Can it be fixed? It doesn’t look promising. The personnel just might not be there, though Akot emerging and Alkins remaining healthy would give Arizona its best chance.
That said, much was made about how Alkins’ return would help the Wildcats on defense, but statistically their defense has regressed since his debut, falling from the 60s in efficiency to the 90s.
That is not to say he is the reason for the regression, just that he is not a magic eraser that will make UA’s defensive issues disappear.
So if there’s going to be anything that causes the demise of this Arizona team, it’s probably not going to be its lack of bench scoring or its zone offense.
It’s going to be the defense.
It’s not even close to being at a championship level, or even a Final Four level, right now.
Arizona probably has four losable (regular season) games left
Arizona is 8-1 in conference play so far, but the schedule will get slightly more difficult from here.
The Wildcats have four regular season games left that are droppable, in my opinion.
There’s the road game this Saturday against a zone-heavy Washington team, the Feb. 10 home game against a red-hot USC team, the rivalry game at ASU in Tempe on Feb. 15, and the road game at Oregon on Feb. 24.
If I had to guess, I would say Arizona loses two of those — at Oregon and at ASU. That would give the Wildcats with a 25-6 record (15-3 Pac-12) heading into the Pac-12 Tournament.
If that’s the case, Arizona could earn anywhere from a 2-seed to a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament depending how it does in Las Vegas (and how the rest of the field performances, obviously).
Right now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects Arizona will be a 3-seed in the West Region, which means Arizona would play the first two rounds in San Diego and then the next two in Los Angeles (if it advances that far, of course).
That seems like a pretty favorable draw all things considered. It is not the 1-seed everybody hoped for at the start of the season, but it is also not the 5- or 7-seed people thought was a possibility after the Bahamas debacle.
But there is obviously a lot of basketball left to be played. Maybe Arizona will become more consistent, win out, and be that top-three team people thought it was at the start of the season.
Or maybe Arizona will have more valleys than peaks, continue to struggle defensively, and/or lose somebody to injury and stumble into the postseason.
You never know.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire