LAS VEGAS — All season long, the Arizona Wildcats’ defense has been their Achilles heel, the area of their team that has prevented them from transforming from a good team into a great one.
Head coach Sean Miller said earlier in the year that the gap between his team’s offense and defense has never been greater. The numbers have backed that up.
But, finally, there is reason to be optimistic about UA’s defensive mettle.
Arizona has advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament championship game because of its defense. Yes, you read that correctly.
The Wildcats shot 44 percent in their victories over Colorado and UCLA, yet won both contests by double figures.
Arizona held Colorado to 42 percent shooting, then UCLA to 39 percent shooting.
UCLA and Colorado fared far better against Arizona in the regular season. Colorado shot above 54 percent in both of its conference games against Arizona, while UCLA shot 52 percent in its improbable road win over the Wildcats back in February.
So Arizona has suddenly been able to tame two teams that gave it fits earlier in the year. That is not something to ignore.
“It’s a function of game-to-game how much we’re getting better and how we’re getting consistent on the defensive end,” said UA point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who did a phenomenal job defending UCLA star point guard Aaron Holiday on Friday.
“And if we keep that defensive mindset it’s going to be tough to beat us because we’re out and running and we’ve got the big fellas.”
Arizona’s personnel and rotations haven’t changed much, if at all, so Arizona center Dusan Ristic credits its recent defensive improvement to “a lot of hard work.”
“That’s something that we take a lot of pride in in practice,” he said after the win vs. UCLA. “We spend a lot of time working on our defense. And then when we played the way we did tonight, it’s confidence for us. It’s a really positive thing and tonight’s the example of how we should go from now on.”
The Wildcats held the Bruins, who have a top-20 offense, to just 0.94 points per possession. It was UA’s fifth-best defensive performance all season, per KenPom.
Holiday, who had posted back-to-back 34-point games and has been seemingly unstoppable the last few weeks, was limited to 15 points on 20 shots.
“Coach challenged me to really lock in on stopping his drives and his 3s,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “I did my best and teammates helped me and we did a good job.”
“Stopping the ball on pick-and-rolls and defending the 3-point shots, I thought that’s what we did really well,” Ristic added.
Arizona’s defense now ranks 79th in the country in efficiency, per KenPom. That is still not a great number — no team has ever won a national championship with a defense ranking outside the top 20 — but not too long ago the Wildcats were in the high-90s and low-100s.
“We’re just running a lot faster, we’re playing a lot harder,” said UA guard Rawle Alkins. “We understand that anyone can beat anyone on any given day and we have to give it our all if we want to win.”
Arizona witnessed how important stingy defensive rebounding is against UCLA, too. The Wildcats allowed six offensive rebounds in the first half, which allowed the Bruins to take a four-point lead into the locker room even though they were shooting under 40 percent.
But in the second half plus overtime, UCLA only had two offensive rebounds. Relatedly, Arizona outscored it 52-37 in the final 25 minutes.
UCLA became the first team in Pac-12 Tournament history to go scoreless in an overtime period. Arizona outscored it 11-0.
“It gives our guys and our team a lot of confidence, because if you can defend UCLA, I think you have an opportunity to defend some of the best teams, offensive teams, in this country whether it be tomorrow or next week (in the NCAA Tournament),” Miller said.
“UCLA did not score in overtime. Our defense was intact, even though there were times maybe when we had the ball, we didn’t execute as well. That’s what March is about. Can you win when maybe something that you normally do well doesn’t happen for you?”
If the Wildcats are defending like they’ve been in the Pac-12 Tournament? Yes they can.
“Offensively, I think we can score on anyone. I think we have the best team in the country,” Alkins said. “But when our defense is rolling, it’s tough to stop us.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire