You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
It’s not just the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s hit song Big Yellow Taxi, it’s also how Sean Miller felt last season when the Arizona Wildcats were routinely torched on defense. They simply did not have the personnel to match the defensive mettle of some of his previous teams.
Fast forward a year and things are much, much different.
Arizona currently ranks sixth in the country in defensive efficiency, holding its opponents to 73.5 points per 100 possessions. Even when you account for UA’s light schedule, it ranks 20th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.
Arizona ranked 63rd last season and 83rd the year before.
The Wildcats are noticeably more active on the perimeter this season, thanks to hungry, athletic defenders like Josh Green and Nico Mannion. Green, a long and springy wing, is already UA’s most disruptive perimeter defender since Kadeem Allen.
After a few years of trotting out undersized point guards, the 6-foot-3 Mannion is the most physically dominant—and skilled, while we’re at it—specimen the Wildcats have had at that position maybe ever in the Miller era.
But the biggest difference can be seen in the frontcourt. As great as freshman Zeke Nnaji has been offensively, going two straight games without missing a field goal, his defense has been almost as impressive.
The 6-foot-11 forward has shown the quickness to hedge screens and wall off drives. Try and challenge him at the rim and he will alter, if not block, your shot with his length. Better yet, he rarely, if ever, takes a play off—a trait all seven newcomers seem to possess.
How can you tell? Miller said Arizona had 25 deflections in the first half against New Mexico State. Normally it strives for 25 to 34 per game.
“That shows you we had a lot of players playing with a tremendous effort and also in the right place while they’re playing with great effort,” Miller said. “I thought our defense in the first half reminded me of kind of where we were a couple years ago.”
The new-look Wildcats also held New Mexico State to 33 percent shooting, their big guys defending the pick-and-roll the best they have “in a long time.”
“It’s been a weakness of ours,” Miller said. “I think that the words that I’ve used with those guys is, it’s kind of a definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and over again, but yet you’re expecting different results. We have to be better in that area. Today we were. Man, our bigs were out early, they hard-hedged. They covered for each other. They ran, they did it for the entire possession. And one thing that I’ll say is, it’s easy to play defense like that when you have subs. You can call on guys who aren’t starting to come in and continue.”
Ah, yes, depth. Another thing Arizona lacked last season when its only players capable of playing the 5 were Ira Lee and Chase Jeter, who missed a couple games due to injury and was limited in several others.
Now, Arizona has Nnaji, Jeter, Lee, and Christian Koloko to play that position. They also have Stone Gettings to eat up minutes at the 4 when one of them slides over to the 5.
With so many big bodies, the Wildcats can afford to be aggressive at the rim. Opponents are only converting 36.9 percent of their two-point field goal attempts, the ninth-lowest mark in the country.
“We’re trying to teach our big guys to protect the rim, go for a shot block, draw the charge, be more physical, don’t play it safe,” Miller said. “It makes no sense. We’ll play a guy with two and three fouls who’s a frontcourt player.”
Before the season, Miller said he was looking forward to “getting our defense back.” Arizona has not ranked in the top 30 on that side of the ball since 2016-17. Before that, they were perennially one of the best in country.
While it remains to be seen how the Wildcats will hold up against tougher opponents, the early returns are promising and yet there is still a sense that they have a lot of room to improve.
“I think that we have been playing good defense,” Nnaji said. “I think that sometimes we play better defense than other times, but when we really buckle down and really focus on what we’re supposed to do in the gaps, closing out, all that stuff, and rebound, I think that we can be a great defensive team.”