Even though they were an active participant in the Pac-12 race for the entire 18-game league schedule, something was missing for the Arizona Wildcats on most nights. What was missing was intensity on the defensive end of the floor, something that helped Sean Miller’s teams rank among the best in college basketball at defending the three-pointer in each of the two seasons prior.
If the Wildcats’ (25-6) defensive effort in the first half of their 79-69 Pac-12 quarterfinal victory over Colorado was any indication, Arizona is better equipped to win games in the NCAA tournament now than they were a couple weeks ago.
Arizona forced ten Colorado turnovers in the first half, converting those mistakes into 15 points as they took a 39-28 lead into the intermission. The Buffaloes (21-11) played much better in the second half, turning the ball over just three times, but the damage was already done as they could get no closer than two points in the final 20 minutes.
For the game Colorado shot 43.1% from the field, which is actually Arizona’s best defensive showing since limiting Washington to 30.8% shooting back on February 20.
Guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker combined to score 30 points for Colorado but they attempted 22 shots (making eight) in doing so.
From a percentage standpoint Arizona’s defensive outing is certainly a case of “baby steps,” but their improved activity on that end of the floor is something that Miller and his staff have been looking for. And Johnson, their best perimeter defender, led the way against a team that gave them trouble in both regular season meetings.
“It’s not always that you pitch a shutout defensively as much as how much your effort level can make the other team or other player work to score,” noted Miller.
“There is no question that [Johnson’s] talent and effort level on defense, that alone, made the game harder for their guards, not that their guards didn’t play well, but our effort level was where it needed to be to win. Many times our defense starts with Nick.”
Offensively the Wildcats were balanced with Nick Johnson leading three players in double figures with 18 points, and six Arizona players managed to score at least seven points.
But outside of their occasional bouts with turnovers, offense wasn’t the lingering concern for this group (they’re 23rd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com). Friday will provide another test in this area as the Wildcats take on UCLA, which swept the season series, in the Pac-12 semifinals.
But regardless of the outcome the following remains true for Arizona: how far they end up going in the NCAA tournament will depend on how committed they are to getting stops.
Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.