With defense dominant all year, modified offense catching up at perfect time as Wildcats prepare for postseason.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's return to a sixth-man role has been among the biggest factors in Arizona's late-season resurgence.
Christian Petersen / Getty Images North America
By Steve Rivera
TUCSON, Ariz. -- It's been Arizona's staple from Day 1: Defense.
It's been stifling, suffocating and, at times, intimidating. If all else fails -- and it has a time or two -- third-ranked Arizona has always been able to rely on its defense.
There's some debate as to whether it's one of the program's all-time best. While that requires some splitting of hairs, there's no debate that the Wildcats are limiting opponents to 38 percent shooting from the floor. It's all about pressure, both near the basket and from afar.
"We can't lose that; it's always been with us," Arizona coach Sean Miller said Monday. "We want to make sure it's with us until the end."
Of course, exactly when "the end" comes will depend in large part on the quality of that defense.
The next and last tests of the regular season come this week, as the Wildcats visit Oregon State on Wednesday (9 pm MST, FOX Sports 1) and Oregon on Saturday.
"March is the month in college basketball," Miller said about playing well at the right time. "Obviously, the nation is captivated by this month because of the NCAA tournament and what it has become."
It's what most teams' seasons are measured on, with win totals and conference titles quickly forgotten.
The same will be true for Arizona (27-2 and the Pac-12 champion) this season, although its tournament task has been made tougher by the loss of forward Brandon Ashley to a season-ending injury. In the aftermath, the Wildcats have had to change things up with a downsized three-guard lineup.
Miller said that while Ashley's injury "was a punch in the gut," Arizona has turned it into a shot in the arm.
"You hope that you can make adjustments, and you hope that they work," he said.
One of the benefits of those adjustments has been an opening up of the court, with less clutter near the basket and more opportunities for some players.
"The ball moves easier. We share the ball maybe better right now," Miller said. "In transition, there are more threats from 3, which opens the court up for drives, maybe overall better spacing."
Miller said two players can be credited with the team's Ashley-less success: sophomore guard Gabe York has been pivotal on the perimeter, and freshman Elliott Pitts has shown an ability to play both near the basket and far from it. Both players have shot the ball well enough to the point where opponents have to be concerned about them on the perimeter.
"You have to really understand where they are at at all times," Miller said. "They've helped with our spacing."
Miller said it wasn't exactly "a no-brainer" to go with a smaller lineup, with freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson reverting to his early season role as sixth man, but it was a necessity for Arizona to take the next step as a team. He called it "trial and error," although only a one-game trial after Ashley's injury was needed to convince Miller that a change was needed.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats' mainstays have "settled into their roles." Center Kaleb Tarczewski has become a major factor, with his footwork more fluid and his confidence at a new high.
Freshman forward Aaron Gordon, one of the most gifted players in the country, has gained confidence and assurance despite his struggles at the free-throw line. He's been helped by a position change that has him closer to the basket, playing more of a forward-center role than a swing-forward role.
"That took some time," Miller said.
And, as has been the case all year, junior guards T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson have held things together.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the move of Hollis-Jefferson, who has consistently provided a spark off the bench as sixth man, a role he was clearly comfortable in early in the year before being forced into the lineup by Ashley's injury.
"I've said a number of times that Rondae is an unselfish kid; he really is," Miller said. "He's competitive and has a great spirit about him. Somebody in the role that he has, you want them to have positive energy and emotion attached with him."
Miller said Hollis-Jefferson's response to moving from starter back to sixth man was "very matter-of-fact." Even coming off the bench, Hollis-Jefferson is averaging 25 minutes a game.
"He understood that we weren't taking minutes or all of a sudden he was going to play less," Miller said. "In fact, Rondae's role has increased since Brandon got injured. He's gotten better and more equipped to play more minutes."
He's had a phenomenal season. What he does on defense, that alone. He's one of the best defensive guards who plays college basketball.
Arizona coach Sean Miller on guard Nick Johnson
JOHNSON FOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR?
Johnson has been a contender for Pac-12 player of the year all season, but up until the last week or so, it looked like UCLA forward Kyle Anderson was the favorite. Whether or not that's still the case, Anderson certainly didn't help his case by getting suspended for the Bruins' loss to Oregon last week. He returned a game later.
Miller said Johnson, who is averaging 16 points and 3.8 rebounds a game, is deserving of the award and should be "the leading candidate" because he's been the on-court leader of the conference champion and has done so much for Arizona at both ends of the court while playing point guard, shooting guard and small forward.
"He's had a phenomenal season," Miller said. "What he does on defense, that alone. He's one of the best defensive guards who plays college basketball."
ASHLEY'S NEW ROLE
It's been just more than a month since Ashley suffered a season-ending injury to his right foot. He's been on the sidelines offering encouragement since undergoing successful surgery on the foot three weeks ago.
Miller called the situation an awkward one for Ashley because "you don't want anyone to forget you." But how could they? The Wildcats went 21-0 with him in the lineup, and the game in which he suffered the injury (just two minutes in) turned into Arizona's first loss, a 60-58 defeat at the hands of California.
"He's been such (a big part of the) success of the program," Miller said. "He knows how hard we've worked. (He) hates to see something go one direction for so long and us not be able to finish it."
Miller said that while he can see on Ashley's face "that he wishes that he were out there," the sophomore still feels good about the team winning a Pac-12 title in his absence.
"It was probably a relief to him that we were able to accomplish it (in spite) of him going down," Miller said.