The trouble with Arizona


Photo: Casey Sapio, USAT Sports

If you could travel back in time to one month ago, and tell someone there that Arizona is 5-3 and unranked, they wouldn’t believe you. And by that I more specifically mean I wouldn’t believe you.

I ranked the Wildcats No. 1 in the preseason, and I had good company.

Arizona’s preseason rankings

    AP     Coaches    KenPom
     3        5          3           1

Keep in mind nothing’s “happened” to Arizona that we didn’t know about previously. Yes, Sean Miller has had to play without Rawle Alkins to this point, but we knew that when these preseason rankings were derived. Yes, the program, like much of the sport, is under active federal investigation, but we knew that too when these numbers were formulated.

Who’s to say, maybe the players really are freaked out by the looming specter of the feds. But, if so, that merely transfers the location of the surprise, doesn’t it? Until this season, in other words, we didn’t know that being under federal investigation leads to missing threes when you play anywhere except on your home court.

For Miller’s part, he says he really wants Alkins back.

He’s a really big part of our team. Bigger than, maybe, any of us realize. Because there’s such a drop-off emotionally, there’s such a drop-off physically without him, that I think he’ll fill a gap that no matter what the coach says or does we’re just going to be bigger, stronger, deeper, better, and because we have a player of his capability who hasn’t done anything yet.

Emotion absolutely makes a difference in performance, and, if you don’t believe it, you never saw Billy Gillispie’s last Kentucky team. Still, I wonder if we can’t carve out an explanatory space where we acknowledge that morale really does matter and where we recognize that the hoops gods do have a sense of humor.

The example of Alkins suggests that, if there’s a top-ranked recurring theme to 2017-18 so far, it might be the fetishisization of the absent player. In a season where teams nationally have had to carry on as best they can without the previously hegemonic likes of Frank Mason III, Josh Hart, and Caleb Swanigan, it turns out the truly indispensable players of 2016-17 were actually Alkins and Sanjay Lumpkin. Who knew?

To my eye, this is what’s been different about Arizona thus far, in order of importance:

1. Bad luck
Arizona’s season to date can be neatly divided, 50-50, between easy wins at home against overmatched opponents, and three neutral-site games and one road contest against NC State, SMU, Purdue, and UNLV, respectively. It is this second group of four games that interests us, of course, and in those contests the Wildcats have managed to make just 4.0 threes per game while converting just 22 percent of their tries from beyond the arc.

A team making four or fewer threes in a game happened a mere 18 percent of the time in all Division I games in 2016-17. For the record, those teams won 35 percent of their games, so maybe Arizona going 1-3 during this strict no-threes diet isn’t really so very shocking.

2. Bad rebounding
In the four games outside of Tucson, the Wildcats have rebounded 68 percent of opponents’ misses. That’s not terrible, per se, but among Miller siblings who pride themselves on years of outstanding defensive rebounding work in the mid- or even high-70s done by past Arizona and Dayton teams, that number will at least earn you a side-eye at the family reunion.

To say that I did not anticipate having to talk about defensive rebounding in early December with respect to a Sean Miller team that starts Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic would be putting it mildly. Ayton happens to be one of the best defensive rebounders in the nation on paper, so part of the issue here could be simply getting Ristic on the floor for more than 20 minutes per game.

3. Bad fouls
Speaking of Ristic’s limited minutes, the big guy’s averaged eight fouls per 40 minutes against Arizona’s four quality opponents. Throw in Keanu Pinder’s “Send in the Fouls” cameo appearances, and the Wildcats’ foul rate in those four games (0.42 opponent FTA/FGA) is miles above what it was in Pac-12 play last season (0.27).

In light of surprises 2 and 3, a downgrade in expectations for this defense, however slight, could well be in order. Maybe Miller won’t be able to auto-pilot his way to another exemplary Arizona D after all. Nor is it clear to me how Alkins significantly alters this dynamic. The 6-foot-5 sophomore was no great shakes on the defensive glass last season, and, if he could lower his teammates’ foul rates through sheer exhortation, he probably would have done so already this season from the bench.

Then again, Alkins is a valuable asset on offense, and, even in their 1-3 doldrums away from Tucson, this team has shot measurably better than its opponents on 2s. Indeed, lost completely (and understandably) in the (understandable) sky-is-falling panic has been the fact that if Ayton and Allonzo Trier keep doing what they’re doing on that side of the ball they’re both going to make first-team All-Pac-12 with ease. Performance-wise they’re a fit dyadic comparison for Marvin Bagley and Grayson Allen, only, uh, on a team that’s unranked and 5-3.

One plausible scenario, then, is that Arizona’s operating deficit in made threes vis a vis quality opponents will correct toward normalcy in any event. The fact that it may occur coincident with Alkins’ return, however, means we could see an abundance of headlines on what a difference his leadership and presence on the floor have made.

Nor will such headlines necessarily be incorrect. Leadership and presence can bring many things in their wake, up to and including perimeter scoring, a relative lack of fouling, and, not least, a much needed change in atmospherics.