Last season the Arizona Wildcats won 33 games despite having some significant issues on the offensive end of the floor. They struggled to find consistent perimeter shooting, especially after losing Brandon Ashley in early February, and their foul shooting was also a concern. Arizona made up for those issues by being one of the best defensive teams in the country, and through six games this season the defense has proven to be ahead of the offense.
That was the case Wednesday night, as Sean Miller’s Wildcats held off No. 15 San Diego State 61-59 despite shooting just 36.5% from the field. Stanley Johnson scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the way offensively, and Arizona’s ability to convert its defense into offense was critical.
Arizona used its man-to-man defense to force the Aztecs into mistakes, and while the number of turnovers committed by San Diego State (14) may not seem like much it’s what Arizona did with those turnovers that made the difference. Arizona converted those turnovers into 22 points, and the live-ball opportunities would be as close as either team would get to establishing some sort of fast break. In a game that was played in the half-court for most of the night, Arizona outscored San Diego State 11-2 in fast break points.
Those extra opportunities can make the difference for any team, much less one that’s still a work in progress offensively. The Wildcats scored 11 points off turnovers in each half, and just as important in the first half was the 13 points their reserves provided.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one of the best wings in the country, and his willingness to take on the sixth man role is something that has helped Arizona thus far. But he wasn’t the only player to step forward with starting guards T.J. McConnell and Gabe York both dealing with early foul trouble. Elliott Pitts knocked down a three-pointer and both Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright scored as well, making contributions that aren’t as expected as those provided by Hollis-Jefferson on a nightly basis.
How much will those players factor into the rotation as the season wears on? Given Miller’s desire to have a rotation of seven or eight players, finding minutes for those guys will be difficult. But due to a number of possible variables, including foul trouble and injuries, those players have to remain ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
That was the case Wednesday night, and as a result Arizona went into the intermission leading (32-31) despite the fact that San Diego State shot 52.6% from the field.
Whether it was the ability to convert turnovers into points or their shooting 20-for-24 from the foul line, Arizona’s ability to take advantage of areas that are akin to special teams in football led to them taking home the trophy. And while the Wildcats have the talent needed to be a much better team offensively, they’ll need to continue to take advantage of those areas while also maintaining their level of play on the defensive end of the floor.