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Free throw shooting, better shot selection key to Arizona’s offensive improvement

The Wildcats shoot a high percentage from the line, but don’t always get there enough

Valley Of The Sun Shootout: St. John’s v Grand Canyon Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats are on pace for their worst offensive season in the Sean Miller era, but they do have a couple strengths on that side of the court.

For one, the Wildcats have done a nice job taking care of the ball, ranking 31st in the country in turnover percentage.

Arizona’s two primary ball-handlers, Justin Coleman and Brandon Williams, are averaging less than two turnovers a game, while its two leading scorers, Brandon Randolph and Chase Jeter, have a minuscule turnover percentage of 10.9 and 11.8, respectively. Both figures rank inside the Top 200 nationally.

And former turnover machine Ira Lee has only committed one in the last five games.

“When we get shots at the basket and really take care of the ball, that’s when this year’s team is at our very best,” Miller told reporters after the win at Cal. “I mean, no coach wants his team to turn it over, but I think those possessions are even more important for us because we’re not a great rebounding team. So we’re trying to get as many shots of the basket as we can get.”

Arizona’s other offensive strength, which is a byproduct of getting to the basket, is free-throw shooting.

The Wildcats are shooting 75.4 percent from the line, the 35th-best mark in the country. And in four conference games, they have upped that percentage to 81.8, the top mark in the Pac-12.

Randolph is leading the way, shooting 91 percent from the line on 4.0 attempts per game.

“Free throw shooting is always an emphasis for us,” Miller said. “... We are a very good free throw shooting team. On a single night that can leave you, but we have a lot of different players going to line and shooting the ball with confidence. Brandon Randolph, he’s an outstanding free throw shooter, very similar to Allonzo Trier. Quietly in games when those types of players make two, go the foul line, make two, it really helps your offense.”

The problem, however, is Arizona often has trouble getting to the free throw line. Only 20 percent of its points come from the charity stripe, which ranks a very average 129th in the country.

Not getting to the line enough was a major factor in three of Arizona’s four losses. Arizona was held to just six free-throw attempts in the nine-point loss to Baylor, nine in the three-point loss to Alabama, and nine in the 16-point loss to Auburn. Instead, Arizona was settling for jumpers, averaging 25.7 3-point attempts in those three games.

But since conference play started, the Wildcats have cut way back on their 3s. After taking 20 or more in nine of their 13 non conference games, they are firing just 16.8 3s per game in Pac-12 play, yet to shoot more than 19 in a single game.

“We were taking too many,” Miller said. “We were taking too many challenged 3-point shots, too many quick 3-point shots. Being a disciplined team, the team that can win away from home, your shot selection is every bit as important as turnovers. We’ve cut our 3-point shooting down. And we’ve traded in some contested 3s for more drives.”

Relatedly, Arizona is averaging 22 free throw attempts in its last three games — almost three more than its season average — and its adjusted offensive efficiency (which takes opponents in account) is 111.0 in conference play, the second-best mark in the Pac-12 and a huge jump from the 106.6 mark the Wildcats are posting for the season.

And in a homestand like the one Arizona faces this week when it hosts the Oregon schools, every point matters.

“We have to continue that,” Miller said. “A year ago, we both had different teams, but when we played Oregon, I think we shot almost 50 free throws in that game and we had an outstanding night from the line. It was a big reason we won, so for us, I hope that trend continues.”