It’s about to get a lot tougher for the Arizona Wildcats, that much is guaranteed. The next time they’re on the court, on Monday night in Hawaii, the level of competition compared to what’s been presented to this point will be exponentially higher.
Wednesday night’s 79-46 home win over UTEP was the most lopsided of Arizona’s three regular-season victories to this point. That walkover followed wins of 90-60 over Houston Baptist and 82-61 against Cal Poly, a trio of teams that aren’t likely to be ones you’ll need to consider when filling out your brackets in March.
But despite the lack of opposition his team has dealt with, Arizona coach Sean Miller at least has a bit of an understanding of what he has to work with heading to the Maui Invitational.
Here’s what we noticed so far, based mostly on Wednesday’s performance:
The emphasis on defense is evident
Arizona was 83rd in adjusted defense last season, according to KenPom.com, its worst rank since Miller’s first season and a far cry from the 2013-14 team that was first nationally in that analytic. With all due respect to the teams the Wildcats have faced so far, there’s no doubt that being better on the defensive end is a huge focus.
UTEP’s 46 points were the fewest Arizona has allowed since beating New Mexico 77-46 in December 2016. The Miners shot 33.3 percent and turned it over 22 times, producing 0.676 points per possession.
Last year 20 of Arizona’s 35 opponents averaged better than 1.0 PPP, with only seven failing to reach 0.8.
Second half surges
Arizona is outscoring its opponents 143-86 so far, a testament to its ability to go nine or 10 deep as opposed to a year ago when the bench rarely made meaningful contributions.
Reserves only scored 12 points against UTEP, compared to 27 in each of the first two games, but that’s still better than most bench outputs in 2017-18.
It might also be a product of Miller and his staff making adjustments at halftime after seeing what the opponents were doing early on.
The 33-point margin was Arizona’s biggest since a 35-point win over Long Beach State last December.
Free throws matter (and will matter a lot against good teams)
Arizona was 17 of 29 from the foul line, a 58.6 percent accuracy. That’s after going 9 of 14 on free throws against Cal Poly.
Leading scorers Brandon Randolph and Brandon Williams, who each had 21 on Wednesday, combined to go 13 of 15 while the rest of Arizona was 4 of 14. Dylan Smith was 1 for 6 to go with an 0-5/0-2 performance from the field.
Those missed freebies haven’t made a difference so far because the games weren’t close. They will when Arizona plays closer games, likely starting Monday against Iowa State.