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Arizona men’s basketball’s early defensive numbers hard to ignore

The competition has been subpar, but still

arizona-wildcats-college-basketball-mens-defense-utrgv-nau-ndsu-tommy-lloyd-christian-koloko-2021 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s generally not a good idea to overreact to any kind of data that comes from just the first three games of a 30-plus game season, but it’s hard not to with how the Arizona Wildcats have started.

The offense has been pretty impressive, too.

Arizona’s defense in early wins over NAU, UT-Rio Grande Valley and North Dakota State has been nothing short of spectacular, and some of the numbers are among the best in program history.

The UA (3-0) has held all three opponents to 52 or fewer points, which it last did to start a season in 1949-50 when the highest-scoring team in college basketball averaged 72.8 per game. No opponent has shot better than 35.8 percent, while the last two have shot below 27 percent.

NDSU had an offensive efficiency of 63.1 in Tuesday’s 97-45 loss, the eighth-lowest OER the UA has held an opponent to in the KenPom era that dates back to 2002. The sixth-lowest, 62.5, is what UTRGV posted last Friday in a 104-50 thumping.

Arizona’s adjusted defensive efficiency, which factors in the quality of opponent and early in the season it tied to last year’s numbers, is 22nd in the country. In terms of raw defensive efficiency, though, the Wildcats are second only to Louisiana.

Lloyd was quick to downplay the early results after Tuesday’s win, noting they came at home against lesser competition.

“I don’t think we need to anoint these guys the 90s Detroit Pistons, but they’re on their way to being a great defensive team,” he said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that being your calling card.”

Every UA player currently has an individual defensive rating of 76 or lower, but it’s the frontcourt players that have really stood out so far on that end of the court. Center Christian Koloko is first nationally in defensive rating, at 54.2, while power forward Azuolas Tubelis (61.8) is sixth.

Koloko is ninth nationally in block rate, at 18.6 percent, with 12 swats in three games, but his presence is more than just getting his hands on the ball.

“Rim protection is huge,” Lloyd said. “It’s not blocked shots, it’s rim protection. When that guard breaks through your first line of defense, and he’s starting to get downhill, okay, you make him shoot over a 7-foot guy ... but even our other guys are contesting shots. All those guys are 6-7, 6-8, 6-10 Zu, 6-6 Pelle.”

Arizona is first in the country in effective field goal defense, as well as 2-point defense. The Wildcats are also holding opponents to below 25 percent from 3-point range.

“That’s how you package defense,” Lloyd said. “When you have (rim) protection, now you can get a little more aggressive taking away threes. We have certain ways we like to take away threes and we practice it, and we understand if we get beat then here’s the next thing. And we practice it every single day. And the guys probably get sick of it but now I think they’re seeing there’s reasons why we do it.”

Getting back to the quality of opponent stuff, Arizona’s first three foes currently rank No. 326, 327 and 136 in adjusted offensive efficiency, respectively. The Wildcats’ next opponent, Wichita State, is 83rd, and on Sunday they could face a Michigan team that’s sixth, while in December they have road games against Illinois (20th in offensive efficiency) and Tennessee (23rd) and then Pac-12 play will feature matchups against eight opponents currently ranked in the top 100 in that category.

“It’s been a good mix, but you know what, the crazy thing is, it’s going to get tested,” Lloyd said of his defense. “Over and over and over again.”

Lloyd noted that, during his time at Gonzaga, the thing that pushed that program to the next level was becoming better on defense. He’s hoping to replicate that with the UA.

“There’s a formula to be a great team and make deep runs in tournaments,” he said. “You want to try to fight to be a top-20 defense and a top-20 offense. One of the big jumps we made at Gonzaga, maybe the last 10 years, was we got pretty good defensively. It’s inspiring the way the guys are playing now.”