The Arizona Wildcats have won four of their last five, emerging as the favorite to win the Pac-12 if you believe in KenPom’s analytics.
It seems wild since it was not that long ago that they got blasted by the Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis.
But the Wildcats have rebounded by, well, rebounding.
What was once Arizona’s glaring flaw has actually become its greatest strength. Since the start of conference play, the Wildcats are No. 1 in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding percentage, tracking down 77 percent of their opponent’s misses.
If that number were extrapolated to the entire season, the Wildcats would be the 15th-best defensive rebounding team in the country. (Currently they are 90th because of how bad they were earlier in the season.)
During this 4-1 stretch, Arizona has surrendered fewer than seven offensive boards per game, overall posting a +7.2 rebounding margin.
“Our team has done a really good job of embracing that and improving,” head coach Sean Miller said Tuesday. “That can go away quickly, though. I think the biggest challenge yet is this week.”
That’s because the Wildcats will be hosting USC and UCLA, the two best offensive rebounding teams in the Pac-12. The key to beating them, then, is pretty simple.
“If we don’t rebound well, it will be a really tough task,” Miller said. “If we do rebound well, it gives us our best opportunity to have success.”
What has led to Arizona’s new fortitude on the glass? There has always been a strong emphasis on it, but the effort, until now, had wavered.
Stone Gettings, who had zero defensive rebounds in the win over Utah, had a big showing at Washington State, tracking down a season-high 12 rebounds in just 25 minutes, as he continues to start in place of 7-footer Chase Jeter (who will be available to play this week).
Fellow big man Ira Lee has collected seven rebounds in two of his last five games. Zeke Nnaji has three double-doubles in that stretch, his rebounding getting better and better as the season has worn on.
But the biggest uptick can be found in Nico Mannion. The freshman point guard has averaged 5.3 rebounds over his last four games after averaging 2.1 over his first 17.
“This doesn’t just fall on our big players or post players, I’ve said it many times,” Miller said. “Nor does it fall just on our starting group. We as a team have to do a great job of making sure that we finish the possession, block out and are physical. We work on it, but just because you work on it, that doesn’t mean that it carries into the game. It really falls on players.”
Who will have to contain three dangerous Trojans on Thursday. USC’s trio of Nick Rakocevic, Onyeka Okongwu, and Isaiah Mobley average a combined 7.4 offensive rebounds per game, though they can hurt you in more ways than one.
Okongwu, or “Big O” as Miller calls him, averages a team-high 16.7 points per game. Rakocevic averages 11.0 ppg and Mobley pours in 7.2 ppg.
“They rotate those three guys along the front line and all of them are very, very talented,” Miller said. “One’s a senior and [two] are freshmen, so their ability to block shots, offensive rebound, keep you off the offensive glass and score around the basket (is big). These aren’t just raw, shot-blocking players. All of them can put the ball in the basket and are clever on the offensive end.”
When it comes to UCLA, 6-foot-9 Chris Smith and 6-foot-10 Jalen Hill both rank in the top 10 in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding percentage. 6-foot-9 Cody Riley is not far behind.
Slowly but surely, the Bruins have taken on the identity of first-year coach Mick Cronin, whose Cincinnati teams were known for their toughness.
UCLA is coming off a home sweep of the Mountain schools and, just like the Wildcats, has won four of its last five. During that stretch, the Bruins have held their opponents to 41 percent shooting while averaging over eight offensive rebounds per game.
“You can see it developing right now at UCLA, that they’re a different team now than they were a month ago and they’re only getting better,” Miller said. “They’re physical rebounding and they’re very, very good defensively. They’re a smart group. I think they’re taking on what he wants their program to be.”
The same way Arizona is becoming the team Miller wants them to be.
“I know it’s not fun to talk about turnovers and rebounding, but for our team, when we rebound the ball, and keep that team away from getting second shots, and we really take care of the ball, which I think is our team’s best attribute, that’s when we’re at our best,” he said. “You have better balance, you can win different ways. So that’s what gives me the most optimism as I look forward.”
You can buy tickets to Thursday’s game vs. USC on StubHub here.