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.
Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.
According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.
That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.
“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”
As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.
Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.
When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.
Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.
Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.
While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.
“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”
Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.