NCAA March Madness
Maui champ Arizona avoids the 'rocky start' Sean Miller feared
"Realistically, we're not that good of team right now," Miller said. "We're nowhere near where we [were] a year ago at this time. I can see us getting off to a rocky start in the month of November."
Arizona indeed hasn't bolted from the starting blocks as fast as fellow top-five teams Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin have this season, but the Wildcats are starting to show signs that they may yet close the gap. They showcased stifling defense, an emerging freshman star and a knack for getting to the free throw line Wednesday night in the Maui Invitational title game, continuing their recent domination of San Diego State with a tense 61-59 victory over the 15th-ranked Aztecs.
That Arizona managed to thwart San Diego State's latest upset bid is impressive because the Aztecs had plenty of motivation. San Diego State had hoped to avenge three previous narrow losses to the Wildcats, one in the Sweet 16 last March in Anaheim, one in the regular season in San Diego last November and one in the finals of the Diamondhead Classic in Dec. 2012.
It's unlikely Arizona would beaten San Diego State a fourth time in a row if it didn't produce its best defensive stretch of the season during the final 10 minutes of Wednesday night's game. The previously unbeaten Aztecs took a 48-47 lead on an Angelo Chol basket midway through the second half but eventually ran out of ways to generate offense against the Wildcats, missing nine of their next 10 shots and scoring only three points in nine minutes.
Such a stifling stretch is a good sign for an Arizona team that surrendered an unusually high shooting percentage in a narrow victory over Kansas State in the Maui semifinals the night before. The Wildcats miss Nick Johnson's vocal leadership and Aaron Gordon's knack for defending multiple positions yet they still have the personnel to overwhelm opposing offenses in time, from an elite on-ball defender at point guard, to overwhelming size, strength and ball-hawking instincts at wing, to several capable interior defenders and rim protectors in the paint.
Where there are greater questions about Arizona is on offense because sometimes the Wildcats simply don't score as easily as other top teams. Arizona shot just 36.5 percent from the field against the formidable San Diego State defense and only managed 61 points because its guards turned turnovers into fast-break chances and got to the foul line 24 times.
In reality, the ability to turn defense into offense and to generate free throws may turn out to be the Wildcats' best offensive weapons this season. The T.J. McConnell 3-pointer that gave Arizona the lead for good with 7:39 to go was set up by a J.J. O'Brien Turnover. Rondae-Hollis Jefferson then gave Arizona some breathing room when he blocked a Dwayne Polee 3-pointer and raced out for a breakaway dunk that extended the lead to four.
That Arizona shot so many free throws was also no surprise considering the Wildcats average nearly 30 per game. While the downside of playing Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson together at wing is that neither can shoot consistently enough from the perimeter to space the floor, the upside is that both are big, strong wings who excel attacking the rim and getting to the foul line.
One of the biggest questions facing Arizona entering the season was who would fill Nick Johnson's role as the team's offensive catalyst and go-to scorer down the stretch in close games. There wasn't an obvious choice among the returning players since Hollis-Jefferson still lacks the ball handling skills and jump shot to make that transition and Brandon Ashley is ill-suited for the role as a pick-and-pop forward.
Maybe the most encouraging aspect of Wednesday night's victory was that highly touted freshman wing Stanley Johnston for the first time showed signs that he may yet emerge as Arizona's top scoring threat. Johnson delivered a season-high 18 points and 9 rebounds against the fearsome San Diego State defense, and while his shooting percentage was low, he was also fearless attacking the rim and getting to the foul line throughout the second half.
In many ways, Johnson symbolizes where Arizona is right now as a team flashes of greatness but still a work in progress.
Arizona still needs to become more consistent on defense and to develop an identity late in close games on offense. Nonetheless, the team Miller insisted was "nowhere near" where it needed to be three weeks ago is steadily getting closer.
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