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Focus turns to defense as Arizona men’s basketball tries to fix struggling offense

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-defense-efficiency-ucla-tommy-lloyd-offense-2022-pac12 Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

For the first half of this season, Arizona looked about as close to a Lute Olson-era team as we’ve seen in nearly 15 years. But as the grind of a long college basketball slate takes its toll, the Wildcats may have to emulate some of the classic Sean Miller squads to achieve their goals.

And Tommy Lloyd is okay with that.

“We’re a great defensive team,” Lloyd said Saturday, after the UA followed up its lowest point total in nearly a year with its fewest points in a win in almost two seasons. “To be able to hang your hat on your defense on a stretch of the season where your offense is struggling like it is, it’s really important to be competing for championships.”

Arizona’s high-octane offense has sputtered of late, averaging 63 points over its past two games after putting up 88.7 per game during a 16-1 start, and it has shot 31.3 percent the last two contests after hitting 49.9 percent before that.

After shooting just 30.7 percent in a 16-point loss at UCLA, its lowest rate in nearly two years, Arizona shot 32.2 percent in Saturday’s 67-56 win over ASU. It’s the first time the UA has shot below 33 percent in consecutive games since November 2004.

“It just seems like we’ve kind of lost our flow offensively a little bit and maybe we aren’t making some shots that we hit early. Then maybe you have some guys questioning themselves a little bit, which is natural. So we’ve got to do a great job as a staff at building them back up, and they’ve got to do a great job as individuals of just making sure that they’re keeping their confidence at a high level.”

Arizona still has the top offensive efficiency in the Pac-12 in conference, per KenPom.com, but has slipped to 15th nationally. Meanwhile, the defensive efficiency is seventh in Division I and second only to Washington State in league play, with the 87.9 rating the Wildcats’ best since 2014-15.

While ASU—which is last in the Pac-12 in offensive efficiency—might not serve as the best example, what the UA did against the Sun Devils on defense might be a sign of things to come. The Wildcats came out in a press, forcing two turnovers in the first 72 seconds and eight in the first eight minutes, and after ASU started 4 of 4 and 7 of 11 from the field it shot only 26 percent the rest of the way.

ASU was the sixth team this season, and third in Pac-12 play, that Arizona held to below 40 percent in effective field goal percentage, which factors in the extra value of 3-pointers.

But now will come a rematch with UCLA, which at 56.2 percent had the second-highest effective FG percentage of any UA opponent in 2021-22. The Bruins also held the Wildcats below their season average of 73.3 possessions per game, a number that’s gone down considerably the last three games with Cal (71), UCLA (72) and ASU (70) trying to take the air out of the ball and neutralize Arizona’s desire to run.

“I’m sure that’s what every team wants to do,” Lloyd said. “I’m not naïve. I know that sometimes as you get later in the season, these games aren’t going to be track meets. I think it’s important to be able to win games in a lot of different styles. We’re okay having to grind it out in the half court, we’re not afraid of that. It doesn’t bother me a bit when you can defend like we do, and sometimes if there’s less possessions, it could be to our advantage. We’ll keep trying to play the way we want to play with great pace and tempo and ball movement, but if the game kind of comes to a screeching halt, I’m not opposed to starting to throw the ball inside more and see what those guys can do.”

As the tallest team in the country, in terms of average height of its rotation players, Arizona’s frontcourt figures to play a huge role on both ends of the court as the season. Christian Koloko was evidence of that against ASU, as he had 12 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and three steals, the first Pac-12 player to go for 10-10-5-3-3 since 2010.

“To have a good offense, you’ve got to have a good defense, because good offense comes from stops on defense and stuff like that,” Koloko said. “Even though shots are not going in, you’ve got to keep playing hard on defense because you can have easy transitions and stuff like that. We’re always working defensively.”