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‘Ugly’ basketball is OK with Arizona as it braces for Texas A&M in Sweet Sixteen

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s Round of 32 win over BYU was more of a rock fight than a cat fight. The Wildcats outlasted the Cougars 52-46 despite being marred by long scoring droughts and low shooting percentages.

Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen game vs. No. 2 Texas A&M might not be much different.

Arizona has shot 41 percent or worse in six of their last seven games. Their offense has dropped to No. 107 in the country and, aside from the first-round rout over Stony Brook, they have struggled to crack 60 points.

Sure, they could try to fix that, but at what cost? Head coach Adia Barnes isn’t willing to sacrifice defense for offense.

Add a shooter to the guard rotation? Nope, that would hurt their ability to lock down on the perimeter.

Crash the offensive boards to create some second shots? Nope, that would make them vulnerable in transition.

The Wildcats are in the Sweet Sixteen for a reason and it isn’t because they play a pretty brand of basketball.

“For a lot of people that don’t really know basketball, the question is always, ‘oh, you guys lack this, you lack that.’ Or, ‘you have problems with your offense.’ We don’t have any problems with our offense. This is our personnel,” Barnes said. “We’re a very good defensive team. We find ways to win. It can be ugly, but we’re not some team with a tremendous amount of offensive firepower. So we’re never going to say, ‘oh, our identity is our offense.’ Our offense is never a problem. Our defense creates our offense and we’re one of the best in the country. So it’s not a problem. It’s who Arizona is.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for improvement offensively. Barnes has harped on creating higher percentage shots by pounding the ball into the post and their (good) shooters not being afraid to fire away when open. They have been on a seemingly never-ending quest to find points from players not named Aari McDonald. Making wholesale changes isn’t seen as a solution.

“Convert,” McDonald said when asked how Arizona can avoid scoring droughts. “We gotta just execute our plays, just take what the defense is giving us and our shots are gonna fall. I mean, you can’t be perfect or shoot like 67 percent from the field like we did in the first game. It’s not gonna be perfect every time.”

Nor does it need to be. To Barnes, survive and advance doesn’t mean scoring more points than the opponent. It means giving up less.

Saturday will put that philosophy to the test. The Aggies have the 17th-most efficient offense in the country and average 75 points per game, which would rank only behind Stanford in the Pac-12. That’s the only team UA didn’t beat this season.

“We aren’t going to be a team that goes out and shoots 60 percent from 3. That’s not our personnel,” Barnes said. “We’re gonna be a team that turns you over, that presses you, that runs. That’s who we are. Offense is never a problem. The problem is you gotta face our defense, you gotta find a way to beat it, and then we’ll beat you. We may not score a lot of points, but you may not either. That’s our identity and it’s gotten us this far and it’s made us very successful.”