The Wildcats had their fair share of issues off the court, but those weren’t the problem in March.
The Arizona Wildcats were expected to be a Final Four team entering the 2017-2018 season. And they could have been, too, if it weren’t for those darned kids from Buffalo.
The Wildcats started the year as the fifth-ranked team in the country. But as the year progressed, although they retained top-25 status in all but one week, they got more unwanted than wanted attention. Their early three-game skid, guard Allonzo Trier’s ill-conceived suspension, and the FBI investigation into head coach Sean Miller made for a tumultuous season.
But when March came around, Miller’s squad was again a popular Final Four pick. Everybody - including myself - thought the star-studded Cats could win the relatively weak South region in the tourney.
It was not to be. The 4-seed Wildcats were blown away by the 13-seed Buffalo Bulls, 89-68.
So how did a team with three surefire NBA prospects in its starting lineup lose in the first round to a team that allowed more than 76 points per game in the Mid-American Conference? It’s simpler than you’d think, and we should’ve seen it coming. The Wildcats were not as good as they seemed.
Even though they were the ninth-tallest team in college basketball (average height of just about 6-foot-7), the Wildcats had a mediocre defense. Other than their 7-foot-1 forward Deandre Ayton, who tallied nearly two blocks per game, they were a defensively mediocre team. With the 83rd-ranked defensive efficiency according to KenPom, the Cats let up 71.7 points per game.
With their size, the Wildcats could have dominated with a zone defense. Instead, they stuck to man defense, and they struggled with it. Their transition defense was sluggish most of the time, and they had trouble fighting screens. To worsen the situation, opponents shot roughly 36 percent from three-point range, which ranked 222nd in the country for three-point defense. These defensive holes were obvious in a 98-93 overtime loss to the Oregon Ducks in February.
The Ducks got everything they wanted in the transition game, and they got their shooters open all night. When the Wildcat defense collapsed into the lane, there was (literally) a sitting Duck waiting on the perimeter with an open shot.
The same problems showed up for the Wildcats against the Bulls in the NCAA tournament, except their offense wasn’t even there to make it a close game.
They had the size and athleticism, but the future pros Ayton, Trier, and Rawle Alkins couldn’t keep the Bulls under control. They lacked the defensive IQ and quickness to stop the Bulls, who drained threes and got out in transition, as other teams had done all season long.
When all was said and done, the Wildcats ranked 290th in forced turnovers per game. It really was an offensive-minded team, and it showed.
As I mentioned earlier, Arizona is a big team. When it came to rebounding, though, it didn’t live up to expectations. The Wildcats could have exploited their size advantage and absolutely dominated on the boards, but they only averaged 36.5 rebounds per game, the 112th-best mark in college hoops.
They were outrebounded at times by shorter teams like Stanford and Colorado, and they were bullied on the boards 37-27 by Purdue in an 89-64 loss in November.
Buffalo was shorter than the average D-I squad. When it really mattered, though, they stepped up and edged Arizona by one rebound. 6-foot-7 Jeremy Harris pulled down seven boards for the Bulls, which should never have happened with Ayton in the building.
The Bulls were more alert, and it paid off. They knew they had to be aggressive to keep Ayton and the Wildcats off the boards. You can see below one example of their team rebounding effort, while the white shirts sit on the perimeter.
Trier and Alkins combined for just about eight total rebounds per game this year, so Ayton was left with a lot of work to do. It finally caught up with them. It leaves me (and my bracket) wondering how good they could have been if they had rebounded as a team.
Ayton, Trier, and Alkins all had usage rates of over 23 percent. They were the nucleus of the team, and rightfully so - they’re all going to the NBA. Not to mention, they scored well over half of their team’s points for the season.
But relying so heavily on their big three hurt the Wildcats. As a top-heavy team, they lacked the necessary depth to make a tournament run. To compound their short bench problem, their offense relied on the big three. When the big three had an off day, the Wildcats were in trouble.
Just as all roads lead to Rome, all offense went through Ayton, Trier and Alkins. Because all three are prolific scorers, Arizona’s offense was a shoot-first, pass-second offense. Point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright led the squad with 4.5 assists per game, but he was the only true distributor. Arizona’s 15.2 APG were only good enough for 74th in the nation. Arizona lacked the shot-creating ball movement that would’ve turned their already potent offense into a Villanova-type machine.
Against Buffalo in the tournament, Arizona totaled just 13 assists. Jackson-Cartwright had zero. The big three combined for just 32 points. It was outrebounded 32-31. Buffalo shot 50 percent from three. All of Arizona’s weaknesses were exposed in one crazy, unexpected game. In the end, we could have seen this coming. Arizona won a very weak Pac-12, and they didn’t have the cohesiveness of a Final Four team.
Maybe the Bulls wanted it more than the Wildcats, or maybe it was just a bad night for them. Either way, it seems clear now that the Wildcats weren’t as good as they could’ve been.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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