Saturday, January 5, 2013

Trying to Make Sense of the Arizona Wildcats

By Charlie Scaturro

Source: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
With their thrilling victories over Florida, San Diego State, and Colorado in the last few weeks, you could argue that the Arizona Wildcats, who currently sport a 13-0 record and are ranked 3rd nationally, have participated in the three most exiting games of the young college basketball season. And while most of us can concede that they’re a talented team who has ridden some combination of luck, skill, and an uncanny ability to mount late game comebacks against good teams, to an undefeated start as conference play kicks off, what can we make of the Wildcats given what we’ve seen from them thus far?

While their one point victory over San Diego State was very much a back and forth affair that featured eight ties and 13 lead changes in the second half, it’s not everyday that a team comes back from double digit second half deficits (including trailing Florida by six with a minute left and Colorado by 10 with under two minutes left) against good competition to win games. But as we’ve already seen, Arizona has made a habit of doing just that in situations where other teams would probably jack up a few three’s, commit a few fouls, and call it a loss. Of course, you could view the Wildcats recent late game success in one of two ways:

1. They’ve been lucky to get the breaks they have thus far, and you can’t count on making late comebacks to beat the best teams in the country

2. These comebacks show that this team is “clutch” and they know how to mount a comeback when they’re down

The truth about this team almost definitely lies somewhere between those two cliché’s, but lets take a deeper look at each of the Wildcats three wins against Florida, San Diego State, and Colorado.

Against Florida:

The Gators jumped out to an early first half lead that swelled to 11 points with less than two minutes to play, but Arizona ended the half on an 8-0 run that gave them plenty of momentum and riled up their home crowd. Of course, Florida used a barrage of three pointers to once again stretch the lead to 11 halfway through the 2nd half. Fast forward to around the one-minute mark; Arizona is trailing by six and Florida has the ball after a Mark Lyon’s missed three pointer. Then, all hell breaks loose.
In a scenario that only a 12-year-old Arizona fan could conjure up, the Gators turn the ball over three straight times, proceed to put the Wildcats on the line on two of their next three possessions so they can score without precious time ticking off the clock, and senior guard Kenny Boynton who is shooting 85.7 percent from the line, misses the front end of a one-and-one, which gives Arizona the ball down one with 21 seconds to play. One cold blooded Mark Lyons jumper later and the Wildcats somehow escape with a W.

Important stats/Trends: Florida shoots 10-18 from three (55.6%), Arizona forces 14 turnovers, Kaleb Tarczewski is virtually invisible (4 points, 3 rebs, 1 block in 20 minutes)

Against San Diego State:

Maybe because they were playing like a bunch of college kids who were pissed about this game being held on Christmas, this one started off ugly. At the under 16 timeout Arizona led by a score of 3-1, and everyone watching had flashbacks of that time they went to a girls junior varsity basketball game in high school because they had 15 minutes to kill. Things picked up from there, and the two teams managed to combine for 56 points at the half to make for a somewhat decent halftime total. SDSU actually started hitting some shots in the 2nd half, and took an 8 point lead with 13 minutes to play.

It tightened up from there, and the ridiculous ties/lead changes I mentioned earlier took place. Down the stretch, Kevin Parrom hit a huge 3 with just under two minutes to play, the teams traded free throws for four straight possessions with Mark Lyons hitting the eventual game winner at the line. SDSU had a great chance to win the game at the buzzer, but all 6’3’’ of Nick Johnson registered an emphatic game-saving block on what would have been an otherwise easy layup for Chase Tapley. Also, Jamaal Franklin’s insistence upon wearing long sleeves continued to frustrate everyone who watched.

Important stats/Trends: Arizona forces 15 turnovers, Kevin Parrom provides a spark off the bench (17 points on 7-11 shooting), Kaleb Tarczewski is actually invisible (0 points, 0 rebounds in 18 minutes), and both teams shoot under 44 percent from the field and under 26 percent from three

Against Colorado:

Behind some scorching three point shooting, the Buffaloes jumped out to a 30-13 lead that had me ready to break out the “Colorado was waiting inside Arizona’s apartment with a sock full of pennies” joke. But as we’ve come to expect, Arizona ended the first half on a 14-4 run that saw them close the gap to just seven. In the second half, the Colorado lead would balloon back up to 16 thanks in large part to their continued unconscious shooting from deep, but of course, Arizona weathered the storm and once again erased a 10 point deficit with under two minutes to play. In the final 120 seconds of regulation we saw:

- 5 Colorado missed free throws and 2 turnovers

- Solomon Hill being allowed to sub back in when he shouldn’t have been able to

- What looked like a clear intentional foul on Colorado in the open court that wasn’t called

- A phantom foul called on Mark Lyons that prevented another Colorado turnover, and instead put the Buffaloes at the line

- College basketball’s version of the NFL replacement refs “Fail Mary” when Sabatino Chen appeared to bank-in a three pointer with 0.1 remaining on the clock, only to see the game-winning shot reviewed and subsequently waived off

Although the consensus right after the shot was waived off (and the morning after, for that matter) was that the refs blew this call and Chen had indeed gotten the shot off, it’s about as close as these kinds of calls get. Oh yeah, and if you’re keeping count, it was two more Mark Lyons free throws in the final seconds of regulation that sent the game into overtime. As you would expect, Arizona outscored Colorado 12-3 in OT and walked away with yet another win that left many of us wondering what the hell we had just witnessed.

Important stats/Trends: Colorado shoots 10-21 from three (when you consider they were 0-6 from long range in overtime, many of which were of the “oh crap, we’ve gotta start jacking up contested three’s” variety, that’s 10-15 in regulation), Kevin Parrom provides another spark off the bench (16 points, 8 rebounds), Colorado shoots 17-29 from the free throw line, Kaleb Tarczewski actually contributes (10 points, 4 rebounds)

And after all that, the Wildcats have themselves a perfect 13-0 record, and aren’t slated to face another ranked opponent for the rest of the regular season. That doesn’t mean they won’t face some tough games in the Pac-12 (I’m sure Colorado will be out for blood on Valentine’s Day, and UCLA looks like they might be turning a corner), but we clearly won’t find out nearly as much about Arizona from conference play as we will about teams in the Big Ten or Big East. Here’s what we know about this team right now:

- Mark Lyons is cold blooded. I can definitely see him hitting a few game winning shots in March

- When this team applies pressure, it looks like they have seven or eight guys on the court. This is one of the reasons why they’ve been able to force so many crucial turnovers late in games

- Kevin Parrom is giving them great minutes off the bench

- Solomon Hill reminds me of a Draymond Green-lite. Day-Day was one of SIIJ’s favorite players last season, so much so that I gave him a little write up on the blog about his POY candidacy, and while Hill isn’t quite in his stratosphere, we’re talking about a senior forward who does it all for his team and helps them win in so many different ways. Sounds a bit like Day-Day to me

Source: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
But even considering all the different pieces on this team, and their impressive early season play, there’s absolutely no way the Wildcats are the 3rd best team in the country, nor should we simply brush off the fact that they’ve needed a serious confluence of fortunate events to be where they are at the moment.

Of course, their record and the fact that opposing teams have wilted down the stretch clearly has something to do with the way Arizona is playing. This is a deep, veteran team that can certainly compete with anyone in the country when they’re at the top of their game, and they’re about as streaky as college basketball teams come. What we’ve already seen on a few occasions is that this team can sleepwalk through stretches of play, and find themselves in big holes that most teams wouldn’t be able to dig themselves out of. It hasn’t come back to bite them yet, but sooner or later you have to think that this team won’t be able to pull a rabbit out of their hat when they’re facing a big deficit and little time to overcome it.

Is Arizona lucky to be 13-0 right now? Of course.

Are they also a good team that has excelled late in games? Yes.

Considering how close their games against Florida, San Diego State, and Colorado have been, Arizona could just as easily be 10-3 right now and ranked somewhere in the mid to high teens. Because of what would appear to be a tendency to let their guard down and not play up to their potential all the time, they look like a candidate for an upset at a relatively early stage in the tournament. Although I will say that there's something about the veteran leadership of Lyons, Hill, and Parrom, (Lyons specifically) that will make me uneasy when I'm filling out my bracket in a few months. Thankfully, we still have two-plus months to try to figure this team out, and I think we’re gonna need it.

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