Top-ranked Arizona remained undefeated on Thursday night, pulling away in the second half and beating reigning SWAC tournament champion Southern by a 69-43 final score. With starting center Kaleb Tarczewski out after spraining his ankle in the Wildcats’ win at Michigan on Saturday freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson moved into the starting lineup, meaning that Arizona needed to have another bench option step up.
Gabe York scored six points in 22 minutes of action, but the majority of the offensive work was done by the starting trio of guard Nick Johnson and forwards Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley. Gordon scored a career-high 21 points to lead the way for Arizona, with Johnson scoring 17 and Ashley posting a double-double with 11 points and ten rebounds. As a team Arizona scored 34 points in the paint and 17 second-chance points against a team that despite its efforts proved to be overmatched inside.
That ability to get into the paint and convert their opportunities has been one of the keys thus far for Arizona, a team that entered Thursday’s game shooting 37.9% from beyond the arc. While that percentage isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, Arizona ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in three-point attempts (161) and tenth in the percentage of points that they score via that shot (21.6%).
Given their athleticism and ability to get into the painted area either through penetration of the passing of a T.J. McConnell, it’s easy to see why Sean Miller’s team ranks in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency. With those interior scoring opportunities will come trips to the foul line. And after shooting just 59.5% from the foul line against the Jaguars, should there be concern regarding Arizona’s proficiency from the charity stripe?
Entering Thursday Arizona ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage, making 67.9% of their attempts. Arizona scored 20.7% of its points from the foul line, a mark that ranks eighth in the Pac-12. Against Southern Gordon made just four of his ten attempts, and given how athletic he is teams will look to make him “earn” those points from the foul line as the season wears on. Arizona’s foul shooting has yet to cost them in a game this season, but with an eye towards March (and maybe even April for this group) the Wildcats need to improve their foul shooting.
Two-point baskets and offensive rebounding have been keys for Arizona, and that will likely continue to be the case unless multiple players somehow become elite three-point shooters in the very near future. With that comes the need to take advantage of their trips to the foul line, because in a big game leaving points on the table could prove costly.