On the surface, basketball is a pretty basic game. The team that scores the most points wins.
If only it were that simple.
The Arizona Wildcats sit at 9-4 after a rocky nonconference slate that saw them outscore their opponents by an average of 8.5 points per game. But that isn’t the margin coach Sean Miller is most focused on as Arizona begins Pac-12 play on Thursday against the Colorado Buffaloes.
“A big concern is just our overall ability to rebound,” Miller said Tuesday. “How we do in that area of the game will be a big indicator of whether we’ll be able to win.”
Arizona has outrebounded its foes so far, but just barely. Its rebounding margin is plus-0.7, the lowest since Miller’s first season in 2009-10 when the Wildcats were minus-0.1.
For comparison’s sake—though that’s not really fair to do, considering who Arizona had on the roster a year ago—the 2017-18 squad had a plus-7.4 rebounding margin. That team’s 55.6 percent rebounding rate, a figure that calculates the percentage of missed shots that are rebounded, ranked seventh in Division I. That was the fifth consecutive season Arizona ranked in the top 10 nationally in rebounding percentage.
This year’s team is 185th at 50.5 percent.
Colorado comes to McKale Center with a plus-7.3 rebounding margin, second-best in the Pac-12, and a 55.1 percent rebound rate that ranks 29th in the country. Saturday’s opponent, Utah, is plus-4.8 on the boards and 74th nationally with 53.7 percent rebound rate.
With no massive big men like last season, when 7-footers Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic were there to clean up the glass, Arizona has to put much more effort into rebounding in order to be successful in that area.
“Everybody,” Miller said, when asked if any particular player needed to improve. “Every single player can do a better job. Our guards have to do a great job of blocking out and rebounding, really everybody who is in the game has to do a great job. We have to do it as a team. That is a concern that has hurt us in moments of our tough losses.”
Junior Chase Jeter is Arizona’s leading rebounder, at 7.0 per game. “Could we get eight out of him? Absolutely, that would be big,” Miller said.
Rather than looking at raw rebounding numbers, Miller said the per-minute averages are a better indicator of who’s doing the dirty work. Jeter averages 11 per 40 minutes, a shade better than Ristic’s 10.2 last season, but sophomore forward Ira Lee is tops among rotation players at 11.3.
Unfortunately, Lee only averages 13.9 minutes per game, mostly because he’s also got Arizona’s highest per-40 rate of turnovers and fouls committed.
Junior Dylan Smith is tops among Arizona’s guards, at 8.1 boards per 40 minutes, just beyond senior forward Ryan Luther’s 8.4.
Even the slightest improvement in overall rebounding can help Arizona’s bottom line, but this is likely to remain a weakness for the rest of the season. But Miller said there’s a way to counteract that flaw.
“Another way you can make up for rebounding is to be a team that can play in long stretches without turning the ball over,” he said. “If we can be a team that really does a great job of taking care of the ball, that can make up for some of our team’s weaknesses.”
Arizona averages 11.8 turnovers per game, which is second-best in the Pac-12 behind California (11.2). The Wildcats’ turnover rate—the percentage of possessions that end in a giveaway—is 14.9, which ranks 71st nationally.
“Ten or fewer, that’s a good number for us,” Miller said.
As helpful of cutting down on turnovers can be, though, it’s not the be-all, end-all. While Arizona is 4-0 when recording single-digit turnovers, it had only 10 against Baylor (while forcing 20) and gave it away just 11 times at Alabama.