Sean Miller has estimated that 80 percent of the Pac-12 utilizes zone defense in some form or another.
Against his team, though, that number seems to jump to 100 percent. Even coaches who are usually ardently against zone defense — like Colorado’s Tad Boyle — deploy it against the Arizona Wildcats.
And it never surprises them.
“We know we’re going to see it every night,” said Arizona guard Rawle Alkins. “To honest with you, I don’t think anyone could guard us man-to-man, so that’s probably why we see zone most of the time.”
Zone defenses have been perceived to be Arizona’s kryptonite the last several years, but that would be a silly argument this year.
Despite seeing almost nothing but zone, the Wildcats have the No. 8 offense in the country and recently overtook the UCLA Bruins for the best offensive efficiency in the Pac-12, per KenPom.
Arizona even fared pretty well against zone defense last year, ranking 15th in the country in offensive efficiency, but the Xavier Musketeers used multiple zone looks in the Sweet 16 and it led to Arizona’s demise, which perpetuated the narrative all over again.
The Wildcats heard the noise, so they made zone offense a priority from the very beginning of the season — even before it. That, plus improved personnel, has helped the Wildcats achieve the results they have this year.
“Last year, we had great players, but if you look, we have better offensive weapons (this year),” Alkins said.
Freshman phenom Deandre Ayton is the main addition, obviously. The big man is a threat to score from all over the court, but is particularly dangerous when he catches the ball in the middle of the zone.
Combine that with Dusan Ristic’s ability to shoot, score from the low block, or operate the high-low game with Ayton, and it creates a difficult frontcourt tandem to defend.
Then there’s the guards around them, who are a year more experienced.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier, and Alkins are shooting 44, 42, and 39 percent from 3, respectively. Trier is also one of the best slashers in the country, and Alkins can do his fair of damage in that regard, too.
So zone defense might not be the ideal setup against this Arizona team, but neither is man-to-man — and the Wildcats are confident either way.
“We love the zone. We’re starting to get used to it,” Alkins said. “I think UCLA’s 3-2 zone, that was the first time we’ve seen it all season, but we’re starting to get used to feeding the middle guy and then playing through the bigs. If we get open shots, we have to keep taking them.“
Maybe the one thing Arizona’s offense has not done well lately is get to the free-throw line. The Wildcats average roughly 21 free throws per game this season, but have only gotten to the line 37 times over the last three games, a 12.3 average.
Trier is generally one of the best guards in the country at getting to the charity stripe, but he only took two free throws combined against UCLA and USC.
Meanwhile, Ayton is averaging 5.0 free throws per game this season, but he has not eclipsed that total since Jan. 25 when he had a staggering 12 free throws against Colorado. He took just six free throws against the L.A. schools.
“We’ve seen really a steady dose of zone, and sometimes the zone puts (the defense) in a position to not foul,” Miller explained. “We probably weren’t as aggressive, but I like the way we attacked both zones. Our problem against UCLA stemmed a lot from their high rate of scoring. But the last two games, how we operated on offense was good enough.”
An understatement. Arizona’s offense against USC was the most efficient it’s been all year, scoring 1.28 points per possession.
Sure, it might not always look the prettiest against a zone, but the numbers speak for themselves.
“I mean, we have the No. 1 ranked offensive team in the Pac-12,” Miller said. “Before this past weekend, UCLA and us we’re one and two. We’re No. 1. That’s all that matters.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire