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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Change has been good to Wildcats this season

Arizona+center+Dusan+Ristic+%2814%29+blocks+Arizona+State+forward+Savon+Goodman+%2811%29+on+Wednesday%2C+Feb.+17+in+McKale+Center.+The+Wildcats+overcame+tough+losses+to+regroup+and+sweep+the+Washington+schools+on+the+road+and+the+southern+California+schools+at+home.+
Tyler Baker
Arizona center Dusan Ristic (14) blocks Arizona State forward Savon Goodman (11) on Wednesday, Feb. 17 in McKale Center. The Wildcats overcame tough losses to regroup and sweep the Washington schools on the road and the southern California schools at home.

As we drift closer to March Madness, change is in the air at Arizona. Luckily, change for this team has been good.

Since the dreadful home loss to the Oregon Ducks on Jan. 28, the Wildcats have won six games in a row, including a road sweep of the Washington schools and a home sweep of UCLA and USC.

So what changes led to this recent winning streak?

Throughout his tenure at Arizona, head coach Sean Miller has created an ideology that defense will be what drives success for his teams. Over the past two Elite Eight seasons, players like Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell have exemplified this state of play.

This year, Arizona has been a one-dimensional team. The offense flowed nicely, but the team struggled to put together many games where the defense fully clamped down.

The most recent game against ASU was a brief glimpse of what Arizona can do defensively. Granted, it was against a team that has been pretty bad this year, but a 38-point victory is impressive regardless of whom you play. Miller even summed up his team’s improvement after the game.

“I’ve talked a lot about our defense. Our defense was in place tonight,” Miller said. “We defended them as well as I think we can, and the last time we played these guys in early January, they almost scored 90. Tonight they scored 61.”

Miller’s right.

In Tempe, the Sun Devils kept the game interesting until ultimately falling 94-82 to Arizona.

Over the last six games, Arizona forced opponents to shoot the ball 39.5 percent from the field. The team also forced almost 12 turnovers a game. Washington averages 83 points a game, but Arizona held them to 72 on the road. ASU averages 75, but only scored 61 on Wednesday.

There are obvious improvements that were made, but there is still work to be done. Arizona’s perimeter defense has been shaky and the team continues to struggle putting a full game together, but the defensive improvements are there.

Another area of change was the implementation of Parker Jackson-Cartwright into the starting lineup.

Jackson-Cartwright made his debut in the lineup against Washington State on the road and the team has run with it. He averaged five assists per game started, as well as only committing around one turnover a game. He also averages almost 10 points per game.

“Parker is playing the best basketball of his career,” Miller said. “He’s running the team and making players better, but it’s his defense that we’re the most proud of. He’s a much better defender right now than he used to be this season. That’s what you hope with young players as they continue to work.”

Kadeem Allen never struggled as a point guard. He’s arguably the team’s best defender and quickest player. Allen is more of a natural scorer, whereas Jackson-Cartwright facilitates more. He can score when needed, but is shifty with his drives and gifted at finding the open man. The offense has flourished under Jackson-Cartwright and Allen gets more opportunities off the bench.

“Parker has not missed one day,” Miller said. “He hasn’t missed one practice or any time from the beginning of school to now. And its that consistency and effort that has allowed him to grow and really play at a very crucial time for our team, at the highest level he’s played.”

During the last three games, Jackson-Cartwright defended some of the Pac-12 Conference’s better point guards. He helped hold ASU’s Tra Holder to 10 points on 3-11 shooting. UCLA’s Bryce Alford scored 17 on Feb. 12, but only shot the ball 4-14 from the field. USC’s Julian Jacobs only scored 11 against Jackson-Cartwright on 5-15 shooting. His impact is crucial and it’s exactly what Arizona needs as it nears postseason play.

Credit Miller and his players for stepping up the defense at a critical point of the year for Arizona. With only four regular season games left, Arizona will need to continue its improvements if it hopes to make another deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.


Follow Kyle Hansen on Twitter.


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