After a dizzying display of transition offense in Sunday’s win over Illinois, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller was asked several questions about pace of play.
He smiled, knowing where the conversation was heading.
“Are you trying to get me to play faster?” he said with a chuckle.
Under Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, Arizona was known for its uptempo brand of basketball. That tradition has died a slow (get it?) death under Miller.
The last three seasons, Arizona has ranked 277th, 224th, and 227th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo metric, meaning they are generally one of the most deliberate teams in the country, for better or worse.
That hasn’t been true this season. Arizona is only averaging 14.1 seconds per offensive possession, the 21st-quickest pace in college basketball.
It’s not a coincidence.
Armed with the best point guard he has ever had in Nico Mannion, and lots of shooters and scorers to run with him, including two fellow freshman phenoms in Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji, Miller is comfortable with Arizona pushing the pace—and is even encouraging it.
“We’ve actually been focusing on playing fast since we got here,” Mannion said. “The past two weeks, we’ve kind of focused on it more, getting the ball up the floor, getting into our sets quick. And when we do that, we’ve got guys that can make the right play, great passers. So when we’re playing unselfish and playing fast, things go up for us.”
Sunday, Arizona scored 90 points and shot 56 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3. Mannion had 23 points and nine assists. When he wasn’t hunting for his shot, he was flinging passes all over the court.
The two main beneficiaries were Green (20 points) and Nnaji (19), though everyone was in on the action. Nine Wildcats had at least one field goal and 20 of Arizona’s 34 field goals were assisted.
If they didn’t know better, the older fans in McKale Center may have mistaken it for an Olson-coached team.
“I feel like both of us (Mannion and Green), and really the team, plays better in transition and when we’re playing that way there’s more possessions, more touches for everybody,” Mannion said. “We’ve been focusing on that in practice and it’s starting to come easier to us.”
Being the defensive-minded coach he is, Miller reminded reporters that tempo can partly be the product of how good you are defensively.
If you give up a lot of quick, easy buckets then, yes, the game will be played at a faster pace.
Fun, sure, but not always a winning formula.
Part of the reason Arizona has generally operated at a slow pace in the Miller era is because of its defensive principles. The Wildcats play a conservative style of man-to-man defense that focuses on taking away those quick baskets.
As Illinois coach Brad Underwood put it Sunday, the Wildcats “let you run your stuff.”
Naturally, that means the Wildcats don’t usually force a lot of turnovers, either. Under Miller, they have never ranked better than 66th in the country in opponent turnover percentage. They once had a three-year stretch in which they ranked 250th or worse.
Right now, Arizona is 11th in that category, an uncharacteristically high mark that helps explain its offensive proficiency.
While that number probably isn’t sustainable, it doesn’t mean the Wildcats can’t be better at pushing the ball after makes and misses and capitalizing on the turnovers they do create.
“One thing that never changes is playing fast doesn’t mean you’re playing smart,” Miller said. “I mean, when you win on the road, you have to be able to get stops, you have to rebound and you have to play smart basketball. If you can do that at a faster pace, especially when you have a deep team, awesome. But that’s the one thing that I think we’re learning. But as you can see, I think we have pretty good starting point. We’re better when we’re pushing it. And in particular with Nico. I’ve really been on him to push it.
“But it’s not just one player. When you’re in transition, when it really is good basketball, you have a number of different players that are threats, and we really have that in transition. And that’s why I think, sharing the ball and taking care of it, that’s the name of the game for us as we play fast.”