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UCLA Basketball: The Arizona Offense Paradox

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The Bruins just might have to beat Arizona in the PAC-12 Tournament to get an NCAA bid -- if they can get by ASU or Stanford. We've said for years here that Arizona is a defense-first team, and their offense left a lot to be desired. That's why they can be beat. But is this true? Is their offense getting a bad rap?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few years, we Bruin fans in the BN community have criticized the Arizona Wildcats' offense. It's understandable. In the last six meetings, UCLA is 3-3 including two in the PAC-12 Tournament. One loss was by two in Pauley last year, and this year's game in Arizona was winnable. There was only one blow-out -- in Arizona. Most of that time, Arizona was thought to have the superior talent.

We've attributed the unexpected competitiveness to two phenomena:

1)      Sean Miller is not a good floor tactician.

2)      Their offense under Miller stinks.

The Arizona fans on the board pushed back recently. They say the Wildcats have the best offense in the PAC-12, and here are the stats to prove it. Are they right?

This article tackles #2. Is Arizona's offense good, and why do we, and others, think it so easy to defend?

My first thought was: the PAC-12 is awful, so sure it's possible that Arizona would be highly ranked. However, it turns out they are, in fact, highly ranked on the national scene (we'll save the death of offense in college basketball for another day).

Ranking
PAC-12 National
Free Throw Rate 1 5
FG% 1 8
Floor Percent 1 10
Points Per Possession 2 17
Points Per Game 1 23
Offensive Efficiency 3 30
True Shooting Percent 3 39
Effective FG% 2 44
Possesion Per Game 4 97
FT% 7 170
3FG% 7 135


In the top section, you see that Arizona's offense is nationally highly ranked in most categories: both straight-forward and advanced. If you've been following me, you know that Floor Percent is my favorite. It is a measure of the percent of possessions that result in some kind of score: field goal, 3 point, or free throw. I've found it highly predictive. UCLA is second in the conference, and at the time, ASU is the only matchup that it didn't predict correctly.

Does this pass the Bruin eye test?

That why I take you to the last three statistics. We tend to judge a college game by the pace, perimeter shooting and, to a lesser extent, the free throw line. Arizona happens to be bad here. Recent blow-outs have pumped up their possessions per game, but make no mistake:  they are a slow team with below average perimeter shooting.

We're also influenced by the history.  This statsheet.com pages gives you Arizona's rankings in great detail, and allows you to create historical charts (not sure why it won't graph last year's figures). Most charts show up and down performances in alternating years. This 3FG% charts shows they have a bad, but improving history.


Two seasons ago, Mark Lyons was their point guard, and he was shoot- first. They jumped out to a great start in the season, but did not improved. The Shabazz/Adams team beat them in the P12T that year.

Let's look at the individual player stats. The scoring load is very evenly distributed. There is not one player (though some would say Stanley Johnson) that an opposing team should sweat about. They are however, tied with UCLA as the best offensive rebounding team in the league, and they cause the most turnovers per game in the conference (I'm surprised by this because pack-line is not known for chasing turnovers). The defense should let McConnel, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson shoot the mid-range and three and plug  the pick and roll.

Player MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Stanley Johnson 28.2 4.6 10.3 0.448 3.7 7.6 0.485 0.9 2.7 0.346 3.9 5.3 0.738 6.7 1.8 1.5 0.4 2.3 2.6 14.1
Brandon Ashley 27.8 4.2 8.6 0.488 3.8 7.4 0.511 0.4 1.2 0.343 2.7 4.2 0.648 5.2 0.7 0.7 0.7 1.4 2.7 11.5
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson 28 3.6 6.8 0.522 3.4 6.1 0.557 0.2 0.7 0.227 3.8 5.4 0.698 6.5 1.5 1.2 0.9 1.6 2.5 11.1
T.J. McConnell 29.8 4 7.9 0.5 3.4 6.1 0.549 0.6 1.8 0.333 1.1 1.5 0.727 3.8 6.1 2.1 0.1 1.9 1.9 9.6
Kaleb Tarczewski 26.2 3.4 5.8 0.59 3.4 5.8 0.59 0 0 2.5 3.7 0.667 5.2 0.3 0.5 0.6 1.6 3.1 9.3
Gabe York 22.6 2.9 6.7 0.435 1.3 2.3 0.544 1.6 4.3 0.376 1.8 2.2 0.797 2.2 1.3 0.5 0.4 0.9 1.2 9.2
Dusan Ristic 9.4 1.5 2.5 0.606 1.4 2.4 0.591 0.1 0.2 0.8 0.6 1.3 0.486 2.3 0.1 0 0.3 0.3 1.4 3.8
Elliott Pitts 15.4 1.1 2.9 0.391 0.4 0.9 0.444 0.7 2 0.367 0.6 0.7 0.773 1.2 0.5 0.3 0.1 0.3 1.5 3.6
Parker Jackson-Cartwright 10.5 1.1 2.3 0.475 0.8 1.6 0.524 0.3 0.7 0.368 0.8 1.2 0.656 1.3 1.9 0.4 0 0.7 1 3.3
Craig Victor 7.1 1 1.6 0.615 1 1.6 0.615 0 0 1.1 2.1 0.529 1.1 0 0.4 0.3 0.1 0.5 3.1
Matt Korcheck 3.5 0.5 0.7 0.692 0.5 0.7 0.692 0 0 0.3 0.3 1 0.7 0.1 0.1 0.3 0.1 0.5 1.3
Trey Mason 1.4 0.1 0.4 0.333 0 0.3 0 0.1 0.1 1 0 0 0.1 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.4
Jacob Hazzard 1.7 0.1 0.7 0.1 0.1 0.3 0.25 0 0.4 0 0 0 0 0.1 0 0 0.3 0.1 0.1
Kadeem Allen 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ryan Anderson 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Drew Mellon 1.8 0 0.3 0 0 0.1 0 0 0.2 0 0 0 0.3 0.2 0 0 0 0.1 0


The stats are the stats. Arizona's offense IS highly rated. That said, their key weaknesses cause a perception problem to the fan, and are exploitable by a smart team.

The key to beating Arizona is to keep them off the glass, dare them to shoot from 3 and not turn the ball over to them so that they can go out in transition. Can the Bruins do that? They were close last game.  They did pack the defense in, and avoided turnovers, but they badly lost the battle of the boards.

Looney, Parker, Welsh and Golomon all fouled out at Arizona. My biggest concern is that Tarczewski is playing much better and Ristic is a good offensive center off the bench. The battle of the bigs is the key to a rematch.  Looney and Parker have to hold their own on the boards and avoid early foul trouble. Looney especially needs to be active -- his man, Ashely, left him to double-team Parker. Parker, in turn, has to pass out of the double team quickly.

In an ideal situation, Arizona's shooting is off for whatever reason, and UCLA clicks on all cylinders. Can that happen?

Norman Powell is peaking right now. I was gratified that he held his own with Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis Jefferson. In the preview, I thought this is where we would lose the game. Norman has to be covered, but Arizona may feel they can sag off him. If not for that hitch in the jumper, Norman would be PAC-12 POY.

In that ideal situation, you can imagine that Looney, Parker and Powell come up with great games, but what about the guards? Isaac Hamilton will be fine on defense, but where this breaks down is his handle with the ball. The Bruin offense can actually be quite balanced in theory if Bryce is off-the-ball (there would be an inside threat, a dribble-drive threat and a perimeter threat).

Further, the 15% of the game that the subs are in is like playing five on four for Arizona. I think I might understand now why Alford goes hockey-line -- he want to get the substitution time over with.

Did you see Arizona beat Cal by 39? On a decent day for Arizona, UCLA can't beat them. The Bruins need the inside straight described above, and a little (maybe a lot) of luck.

That's your first PAC-12 Tournament preview -- if we make it that far.