No. 4 Arizona entered Saturday night’s trip to Boulder in a bit of a rut offensively since Brandon Ashley’s injury.
What happened on Saturday?
They jumped out to a 21-5 lead 10 minutes into the game, and while the Buffaloes were able to cut the lead to four early in the second half, Arizona just straight embarrassed Colorado down the stretch. The final score? 88-61, which included extended minutes for some of Arizona’s bench players.
Arizona shot 60.3% from the floor, went 8-for-17 from three and averaged 1.313 points-per-possession, numbers that are markedly better than anything that they’ve done in the last three weeks. Aaron Gordon put on a show, scoring 21 of his 23 points in the second half, going 2-for-2 from beyond the arc while doubling the number of threes he’s hit in league play. Nick Johnson had been mired in an awful slump and broke out of it with 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting.
What changed for the Wildcats?
Frankly, it might have been as simple as confidence.
The issue with Arizona over the last five games hasn’t simply been their ability to get open looks, it has been their ability to actually make those shots. The perfect example is Johnson, who was 19-for-70 from the floor and 2-for-20 from three in over that stretch. Even if he’s getting contested looks, Johnson should shoot better than that.
With Gordon, the problem is that he wouldn’t even look at the rim from the three-point line. Opposing fours play ten feet off of him when he’s outside the three-point line. It clogs up the middle, making it difficult to get the ball into center Kaleb Tarczewski on the block. If Gordon can make enough threes to keep defenses honest, it will open things up in the paint.
Losing Ashley hurts because he’s big. Arizona was able to overwhelm teams with their size and athleticism. But what him indispensable was his ability to shoot at the four spot.
Gordon has proven he’s capable of making shots from out there when he’s playing confident. If he can build on this game, if he can be a guy that makes 35% of the open threes he shoots, than Arizona instantly becomes a much better team.
If that happens, Saturday night may go down as the most important game of the season for the Wildcats.