SAN DIEGO – Sitting in his team’s locker room the day before Sunday’s Round of 32 game against Gonzaga, Arizona assistant Emmanuel Richardson lamented the general lack of respect for his 31-4 team’s greatest strength.
“Defense is never going to be on SportsCenter,” he said. “To the masses, it’s always about. ‘Oh man, Aaron Gordon had a big-time dunk, Nick Johnson had a big-time dunk.’ But what about the job defensively that he did?”
The top-seeded Wildcats’ ensuing 84-61 rout of the eighth-seeded ‘Zags provided no shortage of those top-10 highlight plays, most notably Johnson’s alley-oop to Gordon for a thunderous reverse jam. Arizona was at its high-flying best Sunday, finishing with nine dunks and numerous other fast-break layups (including one from Gabe York on a running one-hand bounce pass from Johnson) in a game it led by double-digits for all but the first eight minutes.
But the overwhelming majority of those transition plays began with Arizona’s stifling on-the-ball defense. The Wildcats, which hold the top spot in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings, forced 11 turnovers in the first half and translated them into 19 points. Gonzaga, by contrast, had just two. And Arizona, up 47-34 at halftime, did not let up after the break. Both Kaleb Tarczewski and Gordon both notched steals within the first 30 seconds. The Wildcats would finish with 15 of them. At one point well into the second half they’d forced turnovers on nearly one-in-three Gonzaga possessions. They finished with a 31-2 edge in points-off-turnovers.
And then were the blocks. Eight of them. In a play that epitomized the night, with Arizona leading 61-43, Bulldogs point guard David Stockton stole the ball from Gordon, raced the other way and appeared headed for an easy layup – until Johnson leapt up and blocked it off the backboard. The rout was on.
Elite defenses are the hallmark of coach Sean Miller’s teams, but the Wildcats have racheted theirs up even another level after Brandon Ashley’s season-ending injury in early February put a damper on their offense. Their two Pac-12 tournament victories came by scores of 71-39 (against Utah) and 63-43 (against Colorado) and they leave here having held overmatched opponents Weber State and Gonzaga to a combined 35.6 field goal percentage. Perhaps most impressively, the Wildcats held Gonzaga standout guard Gary Bell Jr. -- who averages 11.2 points - scoreless.
"We're the No. 1 defensive team in the country for a reason," said York. "It stood out tonight more than most nights." Sunday’s game was Arizona at its best, with its All-American Johnson making plays all over the floor (17 points, five rebounds, five assists and four blocks, three steals) and both Gordon (18 points, six rebounds, six assists, four steals) and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (18 points, five rebounds, five assists, four blocks) posting huge games. A heavily partisan Arizona crowd belted out the “U-of-A, U-of-A” chant with just less than four minutes left. Miller’s team is heading to its third Sweet 16 in four years and it does so playing as suffocating a brand of defense as anyone left in the tourney.