What the Arizona Wildcats lack in five-star talent, they are making up with pace and balance.
Through four games, UA is playing at its fastest tempo ever under Sean Miller, spending just 15 seconds per offensive possession, a mark that ranks 35th in the country per KenPom. The previous low was 16.3.
The Wildcats are sharing the ball at the highest rate of the Miller era too, with 67 percent of their buckets coming via an assist. That ranks 15th in the country. Arizona has never finished better than 32nd under Miller and finished 160th or worse every year from 2014 to 2019.
Arizona has a nine-player rotation and seven of them have scored in double figures this season. Five reached that plateau in Wednesday’s win over Cal State Bakersfield. Jordan Brown and James Akinjo—who many might regard as Arizona’s best players—weren’t among them, proof that there is no real pecking order on this team. Anyone can shoot so long as they are taking good shots.
The Wildcats have four players averaging double figures while another, Azuolas Tubelis, is right behind them at 8.3 points per game.
And while it’s too early in the season and the schedule has been too soft to know exactly how prolific this balanced attack actually is, so far it’s averaging 81.3 points per game—Arizona’s highest mark since 2003-04—and shooting 48 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3.
Ironically, a team with 10 new players from several different countries is meshing well, and the togetherness has been refreshing to watch.
“With this year’s team, because of how many new players we have, I think it’s fairly obvious that that identity could change as our year goes on,” Miller said Wednesday. “One thing I will tell you, I think our team this year has played with an edge to us. I think that we’re really locked in on trying to be a better group, better team. We play nine quality players, and on different nights, different players can step up and play well, whether it’s scoring, shooting. You saw some of that tonight.”
Part of the reason Arizona isn’t usually an uptempo team is its defense. The packline man-to-man is a conservative philosophy that prioritizes packing the paint and forcing jump shots than it does ball pressure and aggressiveness in the passing lanes.
That means fewer turnovers and, thus, fewer fastbreak opportunities. It also means Arizona’s opponents aren’t likely to get quick shots either, preventing the game from becoming a track meet.
But if there is a reason to think Arizona can sustain this pace, it’s that its defense isn’t forcing an unusual amount of turnovers. Arizona’s opponent turnover rate is 21.2, only up 0.6 percent from last season and 0.9 percent from the year before.
Instead, the Wildcats have been highly successful pushing the ball off of missed shots. Per hoop-math, they are shooting 71 percent at the rim, 44.4 percent in mid-range and 50 percent from 3 when they take shots 10 seconds or less after a defensive rebound.
At that point, set plays go out the window and instincts take over.
“The biggest thing is that we’ve been together since like late August, so we got that feel from each other doing our individual workouts and we find each other’s hotspots and stuff like that,” Terrell Brown said. “This is the culture we’re bringing, the identity that we have. You look up and we share the ball really well and that’s the key to winning games.”
When I asked Miller if Arizona can sustain this pace, he seemed genuinely optimistic.
“We’ve always wanted to push it,” he said. “As games move forward sometimes your pace tends to settle in, and I’m sure some of that will happen. But we want to run off of defensive stops. We want to be fast into our offense. Our guys are doing a good job of that right now. We had great possessions off of missed shots, blocked shots, steals, and some of those possessions led to 3-point shooting. Hopefully we can keep that up.”
Arizona has the personnel to do it. The Wildcats often play three- or four-guard lineups with long, quick-twitch athletes like Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry serving as the pseudo power forward. All four big men are mobile too, including Tubelis who can even handle the rock a little bit.
The 6-foot-7 Terry played point guard in high school, so when paired with Akinjo and Terrell Brown, the Wildcats have (at least) three guys who can create shots for themselves and others.
They are averaging 4.0, 4.3 and 5.0 assists per game, respectively. Arizona has never even had two players on the same team average four assists per game under Miller, let alone three.
Their ability and willingness to move the ball along with a nice mix of shooters and athletes around them has been tough to stop.
Per hoop-math, over one-third of Arizona’s shot attempts have come in transition, where they are shooting 65 percent at the rim and 44 percent from 3.
Jemarl Baker Jr., in particular, has been feasting. He’s averaging a team-best 15 points per game and all seven of his 3-pointers vs. NAU were assisted, showing he’s a lot more comfortable in his new role off the ball.
“When you watched us against Grambling, you might have scratched your head and (were) saying ‘where are we going to score?’” Miller said. “But as you can see our offense is smoothing. It’s smoother. We move the ball easier, and that should happen simply because playing games with practice now, we have a much better chance to improve, and that’s what we’re doing. The key is can we continue to grow in the next couple of weeks as we head towards Christmas and the end of our non-conference season and the beginning of a very good Pac-12 season.”
It would be a proof of concept if it happens. Miller said a couple of years ago that he was starting to prioritize recruiting “four-star guys who want to develop” instead of just five-star recruits who view Tucson as a mandatory stepping stone to the NBA.
The only five-star recruit on the roster is Jordan Brown, but he’s a reclamation project of sorts after transferring in from Nevada after one season as a bench player.
While Arizona has seen one-and-dones put up big numbers and indeed go on to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft—even No. 1 overall—the program itself wasn’t thriving. The Wildcats haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since the 2016-17 season.
The current team—a starless but cohesive group—is trying to change that one assist at a time.
“We’re a hard-working team,” Terrell Brown said. “We play together. We play for each other. We have a lot of grit. We want to win every game.”