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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Defense wins championships come March

Arizona+mens+basketball+forward+Rondae+Hollis-Jefferson+%2823%29+defends++Texas+Southern+guard+Deverell+Biggs+%281%29+while+T.J.+McConnell+%28far+left%29%2C++Elliot+Pitts+%2824%29%2C+and+Matt+Korcheck+%2831%29+look+on+during+Arizonas++93-72+victory+over+Texas+Southern+during+the+round+of+64+of+the+2015++NCAA+Tournament+in+the+Moda+Center+in+Portland%2C+Ore.%2C+on+Thursday.++Hollis-Jeffersons+defensive+versatility+is+a+huge+reason+why+Arizonas++defense+has+been+so+stingy+this+season.
Rebecca Noble

Arizona men’s basketball forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) defends Texas Southern guard Deverell Biggs (1) while T.J. McConnell (far left), Elliot Pitts (24), and Matt Korcheck (31) look on during Arizona’s 93-72 victory over Texas Southern during the round of 64 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament in the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on Thursday. Hollis-Jefferson’s defensive versatility is a huge reason why Arizona’s defense has been so stingy this season.

Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell was dominating March opponents with his shooting touch before heading into the Round of 32 matchup against Arizona. The 6-foot-5 guard had just dropped 28 points on VCU in the opening round, including four 3-pointers. It was the third time he had reached 28 points in March.

As Arizona and Ohio State readied for tipoff on Saturday, the storyline inevitably focused on whether Russell could score enough points to keep the Buckeyes competitive.

Over the next two hours, the Wildcats’ defense answered that question with a resounding no. While Arizona celebrated its third-straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen, Russell walked off the court with a 3-19 shooting performance, his worst display of the season.

Following the game, Ohio State coach Thad Matta commended Arizona on its length and ability to trap Russell into difficult situations.

But Arizona’s tenacity on defense is built on much more than long wingspans or a canny game plan. It is ingrained in the Wildcats’ DNA, injected by Arizona head coach Sean Miller as soon as he arrived in Tucson six years ago.

“Defense, like a lot of things in a college basketball program, is carried from almost one generation to the next,” Miller said. “I thought the first player that really embraced our defense would have been Kyle Fogg.”

Fogg was a shooting guard during Miller’s first few years and embraced the man-to-man style Miller unilaterally employs.

“He passed the torch to Nick Johnson,” Miller said, “who I believe passed the torch to Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson].”

With the Final Four in reach, Miller is now relying on his trademark defense to push Arizona over the hump and back to college basketball’s promised land. After all, the cliche “defense wins championships” is not just a catchy proverb. In college hoops, it is all but the truth.

According to kenpom.com, a site that calculates team efficiency ratings per possession, the last five national champions have all boasted a defense ranked in the top 15 nationally.

This year, Arizona’s defense ranks third in the country in KenPom’s ratings. Of the remaining 16 teams left in the tournament, the UA is second, only to Kentucky, in points allowed per 100 possessions.

The Wildcats’ Sweet Sixteen opponent, Xavier, ranks 58th in that category. Wisconsin and North Carolina, Arizona’s two potential Elite Eight matchups, don’t fare much better at 39th and 50th respectively.

Digging into those ratings, Arizona leads the country in limiting opponents to a 22.8 offensive rebound percentage. In other words, the Wildcats do a better job of collecting opponents’ missed shots than anyone else in college basketball.

The UA also ranks 14th nationally in holding teams to a 42.3 shooting percentage on two-point attempts. With the size of Arizona’s frontcourt, as well as the indefatigable defense of Hollis-Jefferson, it’s hard for opponents to get a good look at the basket.

Layups don’t come easy and neither do second-chance opportunities. Whether the opponent is Xavier, Kentucky or someone else, Arizona shouldn’t be giving up many looks around the rim.

“I think that’s where it starts, with defense and rebounding,” Miller said. “For the most part we’ve done a great job. I think our defense has grown and improved. When we haven’t been that this year, we’ve been very vulnerable.”

That last point by Miller is why there’s still some room for concern.

Yes, Arizona has won 11 of its last 13 games by double digits, and no, Xavier doesn’t look like the type of team that should give the UA a ton of trouble. But if the Wildcats slack off defensively for just one half, it could spell doom against a streaky team.

In the loss at ASU, Arizona failed to close out on opposing shooters, giving the Sun Devils just enough space to make shots and stay ahead. Then again, that loss came a month and a half ago and Arizona has since locked down on nearly every aspect.

Discipline and focus should not be an issue. Not on the biggest stage of the season.

As long as the Wildcats bring their defensive prowess aboard the flight to Los Angeles, they should be in good, even great shape to leave Staples Center on Saturday with another string of net.

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Follow Ezra Amacher on Twitter.

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