Top-seeded Arizona downright defensive leading up to clash with Wisconsin

For an idea as to how good Arizona has been defensively this season, consider that the Wildcats have allowed 70 points just once in their past 26 games.

Casey Sapio/Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Over the course of 36 games, Wisconsin has faced some of the top defensive teams in the country. Ohio State. Virginia. Saint Louis. Florida.

But the challenge No. 1 seed Arizona (33-4) will present when it plays the second-seeded Badgers (29-7) Saturday night in the Elite Eight just might require another gear to surpass.

The Wildcats rank third nationally in points allowed per possession (.90) and, subsequently, also rank third in scoring margin (plus 14.7 points). Arizona plays what is known in basketball circles as "pack-line defense," which focuses on protecting the paint and preventing dribble penetration. And it has worked for the Wildcats and sixth-year coach Sean Miller with amazing success.

"We bought into coach Miller’s gameplan," Arizona guard Gabe York said. "Last year, we were 30 or 40 in the country and we didn’t really ever reach that top-10 defensive team. We lost in the Sweet 16 on a buzzer beater. We felt like we left money on the table. So coming into this year, we had a chip on our shoulder saying defense is going to get us where we want to go."

York noted that Arizona’s success was based, in part, on the emergence of freshman forwards Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Gordon, a likely NBA lottery pick, leads the team in rebounds per game (7.7), while Hollis-Jefferson is fourth (5.7). Those two have helped Arizona to rank ninth in the country in rebounding margin (plus-7.2).

"They give us a new dynamic defensively," York said. "They can guard the 1 through the 5 if they really needed to. That helps all of us out. On ball screens, they can hedge or they can jump. I know I’ll have confidence in them that they can guard the point guard and I can veer back. It’s something that we’re so together and we believe in each other and each others’ abilities."

For an idea as to how good Arizona has been this season, consider that the Wildcats have allowed 70 points just once in their past 26 games. Arizona held Utah to 39 points and Colorado to 43 in back-to-back Pac-12 tournament games two weeks ago.

The challenge, then, will be substantial, even for a Wisconsin team that is scoring points at the highest rate in coach Bo Ryan’s 13 seasons.

"They’re just a very solid team that can get out and defend," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "Some of their defensive possessions make you say wow just how they get after people and make people work. It’s a very good team. They’re in this position for a reason. It’s going to be a battle."

Hollis-Jefferson said the team committed itself to being a top defensive team when players arrived on campus for summer workouts. Though Hollis-Jefferson was not at Arizona last season, he watched from afar as Louisville, one of the nation’s best defensive team a year ago, won the national title. And that message was delivered to the entire team.

"From the beginning of the season, we wanted to be a top-10 defensive team," Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski said. "We really just always have defense on our mind. Obviously, we have some tremendous athletes. But most important thing is everyone willing to sacrifice for them teammates. Being out there with such great kids and great teammates, it’s almost easy to play defense. It’s not a burden for us. We just like to go out there and play our best basketball every night. We’re really successful when we do that."

Jackson steps up: During three NCAA tournament games this year, Badgers guard Traveon Jackson is averaging 13.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 55.0 percent from the field. It is among his best stretches of play this season and has been a big reason for Wisconsin’s success.

"I’m trying," Jackson said. "I was a little frustrated with yesterday just because I got myself in foul trouble. I think this is the perfect time to let everything that you worked for come out right now. If you want to keep winning, everybody has to play at a high level. It’s something that we expect. My team expects from me and I expect from my teammates. Just got to keep playing and have some fun."

Jackson’s play certainly has caught the attention of Arizona players and coaches.

"It seems like he does everything for their team," Wildcats guard Nick Johnson said.

Added Miller: "He’s kind of Wisconsin’s heart and soul. Just fun watching him. He makes big shots. Any player that you start saying makes big shots, I think it says a lot about his own personal confidence."

Miller talks Madison: Miller got his start in college coaching as a graduate assistant at Wisconsin back in 1992 under then-coach Stu Jackson. Miller spoke of one of his fondest memories of Madison, which had nothing to do with basketball.

"I’ll never forget the first time I was driving to work about 7:30 in the morning," he said. "Born and raised in Pittsburgh, and I looked out on the lake and I saw a bunch of fires, camp fires on the lake. I had to pull over and say is that really a fire on the lake? It was a welcome to Wisconsin winter that you could burn a million fires on that lake. But it was frozen so thick, it was ice fishing. They were camping out, going on vacations.

"The cold of that winter, wow, I can still remember it. It’s a little bit like the opposite in Tucson."

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