Armed with a roster thin on post players but loaded with wings and guards, Sean Miller always figured the Arizona Wildcats‘ offense would center on 3-point shooting this season.
“The game has changed and every coach has to cater to the talent of his team,” he said at local media day in October.
But what else was it that he said? Oh right, that “you don’t want to live and die by the 3.”
Well, his fear has become a reality. Arizona is currently posting its highest 3-point rate — the number of 3s per field goal attempt — ever under Miller, while making them at its worst clip ever, shooting just 32.6 percent, the 203rd mark in the country. To make matters worse, the Wildcats are getting to the free-throw line at a lower rate than ever, unable to consistently get into the lane.
That duality has resulted in Arizona’s offensive efficiency ranking 107th in college basketball, per KenPom, its worst mark in the KenPom era (2001-present).
“There’s two parts to it,” Miller said of his team’s shooting woes. “We’re working very, very hard to become a better shooting team, we have some guys that maybe haven’t shot the percentage they’re capable of shooting. When you look at our non-conference numbers, they’re at times alarming, just because the percentages aren’t great. Some of it is us, and then we have to execute better. No matter who you are, the better quality 3-point shot you take, the higher probability that it’s going to go in.”
Aside from defensive rebounding, poor shooting and shot selection can be seen as the root of Arizona’s uninspiring 9-4 start. Its stagnant offense leaves very little room for error defensively where the Wildcats rank a solid 36th in the country in efficiency.
“To be able to create more good 3-point opportunities is something that we’re trying to get better at,” Miller said. “And from an individual player perspective, taking a bad 3 is like a turnover. Your percentages are poor, the ball a lot of times ricochets off the rim, and sometimes it’s almost like a turnover in that it’s a bad miss, which then triggers a transition opportunity by the other team, and it’s nothing that’s going to help us win even when once in a while those those shots go in. So trying to take better 3-point shots, trying to work on creating more of those, and then really working tirelessly shooting the ball. I don’t know if we’ve ever shot more in our practices, outside of our practices than we have this year.”
Which is why there is some hope that Arizona is simply a better shooting team than its percentages would currently indicate.
Brandon Williams could epitomize that notion. The freshman is launching a team-high 5.2 3s per game, but only making 27 percent of them, the worst percentage on the team aside from Emmanuel Akot, who is much more selective.
Miller thinks Williams has played “some excellent basketball”, pointing to his 48-to-20 assist to turnover ratio, rebounding numbers, and defensive effort to support that claim, and believes it’s only a matter of time before his shots start falling.
“I think for him, it’s just more games he plays, the more practices that we have, the better he gets,” Miller said. “And I believe that his shooting percentage will rise, but it’s really unfair to judge him through the non-conference season because we’re asking him to do a lot. He plays the 1, he plays the 2, we’re asking him to play harder than he ever has defensively, we’re asking him to make shots where a lot rests on his shoulders. And the good news for him is he’s going to continue to grow and develop because he has such a great opportunity, and hopefully as we keep looking at the shooting percentages, they’ll go in a positive direction, because I have no doubt he’s a better shooter than he’s shown so far.”
Miller has said similar things about Dylan Smith, who has taken 46 3s, the third-most on the team, but is only shooting 31 percent, a few ticks below his career average.