Arizona basketball's up tempo style had mixed results in 2019-2020
Arizona Wildcat legend Miles Simon tweeted out something so amazingly simple during Saturday's CBS broadcast of the 1997 National Championship Game between Arizona and Kentucky.
Simon's tweet says it all. Many wondered at the time how that specific group of Wildcats, who finished 11-7 that year in the then Pac-10 Conference, could play the biggest stretch of games in school history so loose and carefree. By simplifying the offense and letting the talent-rich Wildcats use their skills and creativity to score baskets, Simon, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and the others thrived.
Hence, it begged the question as to whether or not Sean Miller should take the same approach in an era of 1-and-done freshman and graduate transfers. In doing the math, he might have tried it already.
In comparing Miller's two most recent Elite Eight Arizona teams to this past year's squad, some telling statistics indicate that Miller was much more patient in allowing his players to freelance and shoot the basketball more often. In the shortened 2019-20 season, Arizona was on pace to attempt 2,265 shots compared to 1,904 field goal attempts in 2013-14 and 1,855 field goal attempts in 2014-15.
Where things get really lopsided is in 32 games played prior to the season's cancellation as a result of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Wildcats had already attempted 661 shots from behind the 3-Point arc. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, those teams each played 38 games and end up totaling 505 and 478 shot attempts from deep, respectively. Similarly, in 2013-14, Arizona attempted 794 free throws. The following season, Arizona attempted 874 free throws. This season, Arizona had 699 free throw attempts.
For those championship caliber teams, the winning recipe was lock down defense and rebounding. On the offensive side of the ball, it was about attacking in transition followed by offensive patience and efficiency, with emphasis on paint scoring and getting to the free throw line. Those winning teams attempted more free throws and took fewer 3-Point shots.
Of course, when you convert free throw attempts to field goal attempts, the Elite Eight teams shoot at about the same pace as the 2019-20 club. The difference is the types of shots they took. Those teams wanted contact. They sought out defenders and attacked the body. This past season's team, far too often, seemed to shy away from contact.
More simply stated, it was about hard-nosed basketball. Getting the tough defensive stops on one end of the court and then earning the tough baskets on the offensive end of the floor, all the while pounding the opponent and making them physically hurt as the game wore on.
In 2019-20, Arizona was fun to watch when they were making shots. The Wildcats weren't so fun to watch when they were struggling to score. Since the season ended prematurely, fans will never get to know if this year's club could rally in March the same way the 1997 champs did 23 years ago. Still, it's worth wondering if Miller isn't a better coach when his team's are capable of playing a more physical brand of basketball. If the answer is yes, then Miller and his staff may have to rethink how they recruit.