Arizona's stout defense presents tall challenge for Arizona State
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The one-two punch Arizona coach Sean Miller threw at his team last month hit home. A short benching of stellar freshman Stanley Johnson and a general criticism of the team's defensive effort seems to have had the desired effect.
The No. 6 Wildcats (20-2, 8-1 Pac-12) have had the look of a Final Four contender -- what else is new? -- since losing two of four games on either side of the new year, and they will bring a six-game winning streak into a Pac-12 rematch against Arizona State (11-11, 3-6) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. MT on FOX).
Johnson, a 6-foot-7 freshman forward often mentioned in one-and-done conversations, has his two highest-scoring games in the seven played since he was held out of the starting lineup in the first meeting with ASU -- a 73-49 Arizona rout in Tucson on Jan. 4. The benching followed a seven-turnover outing in a loss at UNLV on Dec. 23.
Arizona's defense, meanwhile, has held opponents to 56 points or less since their other loss at Oregon State. The Wildcats avenged a 58-56 defeat in Corvallis on Jan. 11 with a 57-34 dismantling of the Beavers at McKale Center a week ago Friday, limiting Oregon State to 28.6 percent shooting from the field.
"In some ways, I think we're playing maybe our best overall basketball of the season," Miller said in a conference call. "We've had a good stretch of health, that's number one. We are implementing a couple of young players, one of which, Stanley Johnson, is certainly one of our primary players.
"It's like everything -- you have to be able to go through some more experiences to feel completely comfortable. As he has practiced now over three and four months, he has played against virtually every style, home, away. He has a number of experiences that are on his side. I think he in particular is more settled in, more a part of what we do, and I think really establishing himself as a really terrific player.
"Each week of the Pac-12 season, he is more accustomed to the college game and more into the framework of what we do. He practices harder and better. Hopefully we are in a good point right now."
If there is a road venue for Miller to treat with apprehension however, it could be Wells Fargo Arena. ASU has won two of the last three meetings in Tempe, including last year's 69-66 double overtime victory over then-No. 2 Arizona that propelled the Sun Devils into the NCAA tournament.
ASU also beat Arizona the final game of the regular season in 2012.
"It is a great challenge," ASU coach Herb Sendek said of attacking the type of length and athleticism that Arizona brings. "The possession doesn't stop when you guard their action. They are a ferocious rebounding team. They miss a shot, that is just the beginning of their offense."
Senior forward Jonathan Gilling made five 3-pointers in ASU's 87-80 victory over the Wildcats in 2012 and is the longest-tenured player on either roster. "We definitely will try to help the young guys understand how important this game is," Gilling said.
Arizona has held opponents to 39.7 percent shooting from the field this season, and it ranks sixth in Division I by Teamrankings.com in defensive efficiency (.855), a statistic that calculates points allowed per possession in games against Division I opponents. The Wildcats were second (.875) last season, when one-and-done freshman forward Aaron Gordon was a particularly imposing presence inside.
Arizona adds to its defensive efficiency by its rebounding work. The Wildcats lead the Pac-12 with a plus-7.5 rebounding edge, and they lead Division I in the fewest percentage of offensive rebounds permitted per game.
"I think we have established ourselves as being a very good defensive team," Miller said. "Hopefully we can continue that. It is not as easy late in the year. There are a lot of teams that can do it for awhile but can't sustain it. I think our quest to be able to be that same tough-minded, hard-to-score-on defensive team after 18 (conference) games as we are after nine."