Defense at heart of Wildcats’ success

TUCSON, Ariz. — Hope is where the heart is.

Right now, Arizona’s hope of finishing strong and maybe, just maybe, getting a shot at the NCAA tournament will come from its defense.

It’s on that end of the basketball court where the Wildcats have consistently shown the most heart throughout an up-and-down season, and especially in a sweep last week at California and Stanford.

“We’re feeling good, but it’s not over,’’ freshman guard Nick Johnson said.

The Wildcats stand at 16-8 overall and 7-4 in Pac-12 play heading into home games against Colorado (Thursday night) and Utah (Saturday).

Arizona coach Sean Miller has said all season that defense will be the determining factor in the team’s ultimate success. It has been the cornerstone and will continue to be.

The Wildcats rank fourth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense, giving up 26.7 percent. From the floor overall, opponents are shooting 39.8 percent, which puts Arizona 40th in the nation.

Arizona works so hard on defense in part because it’s come to grips with its offensive limitations.

“It’s the thing I am most proud of,’’ Miller said. “Anytime you take over a program, you want to create an identity and you want to see improvement from one season to the next.’’

This season it has been game to game — and it’s given the Wildcats a fighting chance in virtually every outing.

It’s been more about attitude than talent. There’s no fancy strategy — just stick to the assignment and stay in “help’’ mode at all times. Miller describes it as a “disciplined pressure.’’

“I am very proud of our defense,’’ Miller said. “I do have my fingers crossed because having coached other good defensive teams, it could leave you in a minute. Our danger is that if our defensive leaves us, it would be a disaster. It’s kept us in virtually every game. I would hope we can continue to develop on offense and keep our defense the same, and you will see us finish very strong.’’

Jordin Mayes update

The Wildcats’ depth will continue to be tested for at least another week. Maybe longer.

Miller said Tuesday that sophomore guard Jordin Mayes is suffering from a stress reaction in his right foot.

“Rest is the best option,’’ Miller said, adding that Mayes “already feels a little bit better, which is a good sign’’

It’s unlikely Mayes will play this week. He is wearing a walking boot.

He could be out until Pac-12 tournament in four weeks.

“It’s a matter of when his pain subsides, and we anticipate it will,” Miller said.

The injury is on the same foot that was broken last summer, when a screw was inserted in the foot.

“The good news is that his surgery and everything that happened previously is completely intact,” Miller said.

“Jordin is relieved that his foot isn’t broken. When you go through what he did, you always think worst-case scenario. We all did, because it’s the same foot and roughly the same area.’’

Mayes was averaging 18.2 minutes a game and 5.5 points. His absence, coming on the heels of Kevin Parrom’s season-ending foot injury, leaves Arizona with four backcourt players: seniors Kyle Fogg and Brendon Lavender and freshmen Josiah Turner and Johnson. The Wildcats are equally thin up front and have employed a three-guard lineup for most of the season.

Free-throw woes

The good news is Arizona is getting to the free-throw line a lot. In the past five games, it has gotten to the line nearly eight more times (on average) and scored 3.1 points more from the line than its opponents. The problem lately, however, is that more shots are translating to more misses.

Overall, the Wildcats are shooting 68.7 percent from the line but only 65 percent in Pac-12 games. It has mirrored the past four games. Last weekend, they made only 30 of 54 (55.6 percent).

Miller said because the team shot free throws well in each of the past two years (74.6 and 73.3 percent), that’s “what doesn’t feel right’’ about this year.

“I believe we have a few players not shooting up to their capability,’’ he said. “We’re trying to address it. Sometimes, it’s about confidence. There’s no easy solution.’’