In Sean Miller’s three seasons as head coach at Arizona prior to the 2012-13 campaign, the Wildcats routinely ranked among the nation’s best when it came to defending the three-point line. After limiting opponents to 31.3% shooting from deep in his first season (ranking 50th nationally), Arizona landed in the Top 5 of that stat two years in a row.
That standard of excellence is what made last season’s performance, in which conference opponents shot nearly 38% from deep, all the more startling. However despite those defensive issues on the perimeter, Arizona reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Ohio State.
The Wildcats did lose three seniors from that squad (guard Mark Lyons and forwards Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom) as well as freshman forward Grant Jerrett. But with two McDonald’s All-Americans (Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) arriving and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell (2.8 steals/game as a sophomore) eligible after sitting out last season, expectations are once again high in the “Old Pueblo.”
If the Wildcats are to make good on that promise however, they’ll need to improve defensively. And the feeling is that this group has the tools needed to do just that. With that being the case, coach Miller may do some tinkering according to Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star.
So he’s thinking about tweaking his man-to-man defense, which has generally improved steadily since Miller’s arrival in 2009 but struggled at times last season.
“I believe in man-to-man – that will always be the primary defense that you play – but there are a lot of different things you can do within man-to-man,” Miller said. “Using our athleticism is something I would be foolish not to take advantage of and I think our team has a lot of ability on defense.
“Trapping and pressuring the ball, maybe even changing defenses some, is something we’ve looked at all summer and again it’s always about putting your talent in the best position to be successful.”
Of the teams that reached last season’s Final Four Michigan was the “worst” when it came to defending the three, with opponents making 32.5% of their attempts. And of the last five national champions just one allowed opponents to shoot better than 33%, with the 2008-09 North Carolina squad limiting teams to 33.7% from three.
For the entire season Arizona’s opponents made 35.8% of their three-pointers, and after clamping down on Belmont (29.6%) and Harvard (27.8%) the Wildcats were burned by a group of Buckeyes who managed to shoot 53% from deep.
With the addition of athletic defenders such as Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon, and the solid McConnell at the point, the early feeling is that this group is capable of playing defense at a level that’s become the standard during Miller’s tenure in Tucson.
And if that proves to be the case, Arizona has a shot to do some damage next spring.