No. 1 Arizona narrowly escaped Stanford on Wednesday with its perfect record intact, thanks to a defensive effort that held the Cardinal to just four points in the final ten minutes of play. The Wildcats combine elite individual defenders with an ability to take care of the ball, riding a balanced attack to a school-record 21-0 start.
Ken Pomeroy rates Arizona as his No. 2 overall defense, trailing only Saint Louis. The Wildcats are fourth in the country in overall scoring defense, allowing just 56.7 points per game. Opposing teams are shooting just 37.2 percent from the field against Arizona, also good for fourth in the nation.
Last season's team, in contrast, allowed 63.6 points per game. The difference in this campaign has been the arrival of freshmen phenom Aaron Gordon, who is playing two-way basketball like no other player in the country. At 6'9 and 225 pounds, the San Jose native can shift around the floor and lock down players at multiple positions.
The freshman is averaging a block per contest and is a nightmare on the boards, collecting a team-leading 7.8 rebounds per game. Gordon is the reason Arizona is fifth in the nation in rebounding margin, grabbing over 10 rebounds more than their opponents on a nightly basis.
Combine Gordon's raw talent with the size and athleticism of the rest of the frontcourt, and the Wildcats defense becomes truly formidable. Kaleb Tarczewski is a true seven-footer, while Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are long and explosive athletes with NBA futures. Stanford ran into a number of Wildcats walls in the paint down the stretch of Wednesday's game, failing to hit more than a single field goal in the final ten minutes.
Just as important for the Wildcats is a positive turnover margin, which helps a defense avoid run-outs and easy transition baskets. Arizona has created two more turnovers per game than it has committed, tied with Wisconsin for 74th in the country. The Wildcats lost the turnover battle (by one) against Stanford, but still managed to hold on to the ball on all but eight possessions.
Arizona's ability to defend and control the ball is a testament to the individual talents and capabilities of its players, but also to head coach Sean Miller. In his fifth season with the team, Miller will have the Wildcats in their fourth straight NCAA Tournament come March. In his tenure at Xavier, Miller won three straight Atlantic 10 titles and brought the Musketeers to four straight tournaments.
Arizona has been in some tight games this season, with four of its 21 wins coming by four points or less. In each of those games, the Wildcats were composed and well-coached down the stretch. Up three with under ten second remaining in the Stanford game, Miller decided to send Chasson Randle to the line instead of allowing a potential game-tying shot attempt.
Randle hit both, but the Wildcats inbounded the ball easily and Nick Johnson sank his pair of free throws to bring the margin back to three. It was great decision-making from a great coach, who could add an NCAA Championship to his resume if Arizona continues to play this well.