Arizona pummelled Colorado, 88-61, in Boulder, Co., on Saturday night and, to the perpetrators, it must have felt like a breath of fresh air. Since forward Brandon Ashley lost his season to a foot injury, the Wildcats had been struggling in all of the obvious, understandable ways. Which is to say, offensively.
Until Saturday -- including the loss at California in which it happened -- the Wildcats had averaged .997 points per possession since the Ashley injury. The loss of his unique skill set, a mix of interior strength, floor spacing and size, proved impossible to replace. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is an excellent player in his own right, but a different one. And so the Wildcats struggled in every game, save for a home blowout of Oregon State, scrounging for points, fighting close finishes, narrowly avoiding losses, watching one-time player of the year candidate Nick Johnson take a massive scoring nosedive.
Prior to Arizona's 67-63 win at Utah last week, Sean Miller made a decision. He would sit Hollis-Jefferson and start Gabe York. At the time, some speculated Hollis-Jefferson was in trouble. Instead, Miller decided that what his team needed was offense, and what York needed was confidence, and so he tried a little lineup voodoo to make it work.
"We wanted to give Gabe an opportunity at the beginning,” Miller said. “Sometimes if you give a guy a fresh opportunity they play with more confidence. And it ended up working. He shot the ball like he’s capable of. Rondae’s role didn’t change. He played the same amount of minutes [31 on Wednesday]. It kind of gave Gabe what I would call a new beginning where you have a chance to start and be out there. It was great to see."
No one would go so far as to say York's starting role led to Arizona's breakout performance Saturday. That would be silly, not least of which because York scored just four points on nine percent usage Saturday. But the ability to bring Hollis-Jefferson off the bench, where he was so useful before Ashley's injury, is important, as is Arizona's general ability to space the floor. The three-guard look is a good one, at least according to early returns.
And anyway, it would be just as silly to attribute too much of the Wildcats' success to offense in the first place.
No, where the Wildcats have always been best this season is on the defensive end. That hasn't changed since the Ashley injury: Arizona ranks No. 1 in the country in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing opponents just .869 points per trip. In Pac-12 play, the Wildcats have allowed .891. Pac-12 teams shoot just 41 percent from inside the arc against Arizona, and the Wildcats force the second-most 2-point field goal attempts of any team in the league -- and 26th nationally.
York's installation in the starting lineup might change these facts slightly. We'll see. For now, as long as Johnson and T.J. McConnell are running shooters off the perimeter, and Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski are behind them ready to fill in Miller's adaptive pack-line defense, the Wildcats are going to keep playing the best defense in the country. Let's see how far they've come offensively in their rematch with Cal Wednesday night.