Arizona basketball: Wildcats have been clutch in close games

Anthony Gimino

The Arizona Wildcats aren't a great offensive team. They aim to merely survive the rebounding battle after years of dominating the glass. The depth just took a jolt with the midseason departure of starting forward Emmanuel Akot.

This is, from a talent standpoint, coach Sean Miller's worst team since his third group in Tucson, the one that lost at home in the first round of the 2012 NIT to Bucknell.

But another seemingly conflicting thought about this team also seems true: It's good enough to win the Pac-12.

While that says a lot about the state of the league, it also says something about what might be the Wildcats' biggest strength this season. That is, they have been really good at close games.

And they figure to play many more close games, because their offense isn't good enough to run away from the majority of Pac-12 teams, who, in turn, probably aren't good enough to bury Arizona. If nothing else, the Cats can play defense and grind into a tight game.

One of those close games could come Thursday night, when Arizona (13-4, 4-0 Pac-12) takes on Oregon (10-6, 1-2).

Arizona has been on both ends of blowouts this season, but there have been six games that were up for grabs with 4 minutes to go -- and by that we mean within a two-possession score.

Arizona is a tidy 5-1 in those games:

**vs. Iowa State, tied at 58. Arizona won 71-66.

**at UConn, Arizona up 64-59. Won 76-72.

**at Alabama, down 64-60. Lost 76-73.

**vs. UC Davis, tied at 64. Won 70-68.

**vs. Utah, up 68-66. Won 84-81 in overtime.

**at Stanford, up 61-58. Won 75-70.

Here's a common theme:

In those six games, under the 4-minute mark of regulation, Arizona has made a staggering 48 of 54 free throw attempts. That's 88.9 percent. That is a great way to stiff-arm any comeback attempt from the opponent.

The Wildcats are shooting 75.4 percent from the line for the season, which is second in the conference. They are at a league-leading 81.8 percent through four conference games.

"Free-throw shooting is always an emphasis for us," Miller said.

"I'd like to say, 'Hey, we've shot more and we made more (in practice),' but we are a very good free-throw shooting team. On a single night, that can leave you, but we have a lot of different players going to the line, shooting the ball with confidence.

"Brandon Randolph, he's an outstanding free-throw shooter. Very similar to Allonzo Trier; quietly in games, when those kind of players make two -- go to the foul line, make two -- it really helps your offense."

Randolph is at 91.2 percent (62 of 68). Justin Coleman hits 81.0 percent (34 of 42). Brandon Williams makes 78.5 percent (51 of 65). That's the three guys most likely to have the ball in their hands late in games.

Arizona made 8 of 8 free throws down the stretch against Iowa State and in subsequent close games were 12 of 13 (UConn), 2 of 2 (Alabama), 3 of 4 (UC Davis), 15 of 19 (Utah), 8 of 8 (Stanford).

Finding a way to win close games is about the most important skill Arizona can have as it pushes forward in Pac-12 play, and being clutch at the line is a big part of that.

On Thursday night, Miller is hoping for a repeat of Arizona's home game against Oregon last season. The Wildcats made 34 of 37 attempts from the foul line, winning 90-83.

"That was a big reason we won," Miller said. "For us, I hope that trend continues."