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Arizona’s offense is elite because of three key stats

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This pass by Terrell Brown probably didn’t result in a turnover
Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Sean Miller’s teams are usually known for their defensive prowess,* but the 2020-21 squad is actually elite on offense.

The Arizona Wildcats rank 14th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric, which accounts for offensive efficiency and strength of schedule. That is the highest they have ranked since the 2014-15 Elite Eight squad.

If you prefer more traditional metrics like points per game, this is Miller’s third-highest scoring team at Arizona (80.0 PPG), only behind the 2017-18 and 2014-15 squads.

Unlike those teams, which featured future NBA lottery picks like Deandre Ayton and Stanley Johnson, the current squad does not have a bonafide star.

Instead, these Wildcats lean on a balanced, moderately-paced attack. They have five players averaging in double figures but none averaging more than 12.5 points per game.

Yet, several are capable of having big nights if the team needs it. Arizona is the only team in the country with three players who have scored 31 or more points in a game—Jemarl Baker Jr., Azuolas Tubelis and, most recently, Bennedict Mathurin.

Arizona has also gotten 25-point outings from Jordan Brown and James Akinjo.

All five players will return next season barring a surprise transfer or NBA draft decision. That is exciting, considering that Arizona usually has so much roster turnover that it has had trouble building continuity from one year to the next.

Arizona’s shooting percentages aren’t that of an elite offensive team. They are 185th in the country in 2-point percentage, 70th in 3-point percentage and 166th in free throw percentage.

How has their offense been so good anyway? They excel in three key stats to make up for it: offensive rebounding percentage, free throw rate and turnover percentage. Arizona ranks 11th, 16th and 46th in the country in those metrics, respectively.

Arizona has rebounded roughly 37 percent of its misses, which Miller has mostly attributed to his team’s personnel. They have the 13th-tallest rotation in the country, per KenPom.

7-foot-1 center Christian Koloko, who was just reinserted into the starting lineup, has an offensive rebounding percentage of 16.4, which would rank him 11th in the country if he played 40% of Arizona’s minutes. (He has played 39.2%, so it’s only a matter of time before he qualifies.)

The 6-foot-11 Azuolas Tubelis is 83rd in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and has seen his role increase quite significantly lately, starting in seven straight games and playing 30 or more minutes in three of them.

Ira Lee, Jordan Brown and Mathurin are solid offensive rebounders as well. While they all have good size for their position, there’s more to rebounding than just being bigger than your opponent. Lee said the Wildcats preach about attacking the glass with a “dog mentality.” In other words, being physical and relentless.

As far as turnovers go, the Wildcats are in great hands with Akinjo and Terrell Brown Jr. running the offense. Akinjo is averaging 5.7 assists per game to just 2.2 turnovers. That is a solid ratio, but nothing compared to Brown, who has 44 assists to just six turnovers, the seventh-best ratio in the country.

Brown was moved into the starting lineup to replace the injured Baker last game and had five assists and zero turnovers in the rout of Oregon State, showing he will still make good decisions with the ball when in a bigger role.

Limiting turnovers means Arizona does not waste possessions. And even when those possessions result in missed shots, there is a great chance they grab the rebound and put up another one. That can compensate for cold shooting nights, especially since offensive rebounds often result in putbacks or shooting fouls—high percentage opportunities.

Arizona clearly puts an emphasis on getting the ball inside, whether that’s with drives or post-ups. The Wildcats rank 300th in the country in 3-point rate. However, when they do shoot 3s, they have been pretty effective, hitting 36% of them.

The Wildcats get about half of their points from 2-point shots—that’s slightly above the nation’s average—and 23% of their points from the charity stripe, the 31st-highest mark in the country.

Arizona is averaging 25.9 free throw attempts per game, the fourth-most in the country. Tubelis, Jordan Brown and Akinjo all average over four per game. Mathurin is right behind them at 3.7.

The Wildcats make 70.6% of their free throws, just an average mark. However, they get to the line so many times that it’s a big boost to their offense nonetheless.

Plus, Arizona is improving. Over the last four games, they have averaged 25 free throws per game and made 76% percent of them, which would be the 37th-best mark in the country if extrapolated over an entire season.

But if Arizona’s offense is so good, why are they 4-3 in a weak Pac-12? Ironically, it’s because of their defense. It ranks 58th in the country and has had a tough time guarding without fouling, ranking 254th in opponent free throw rate.

Arizona’s adjusted defensive efficiency for the season is 95.2, but in their three losses it has devolved to:

  • 112.7 at Stanford
  • 115.8 vs. USC
  • 124.8 vs. UCLA

*Let’s smash a narrative

While Miller is known as a defensive-minded head coach, in my opinion he doesn’t get enough credit for his offenses. The Wildcats have ranked Top 20 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric in eight of his 12 seasons at the helm.

The years they didn’t reach that plateau:

  • 2009-10: 83rd
  • 2011-12: 87th
  • 2018-19: 153rd
  • 2019-20: 35th

Sure, Arizona’s offenses aren’t the prettiest, but they produce. Don’t let the eye test fool you.