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Thursday, December 12, 2013
Weekend Homework: Rising Arizona

By Eamonn Brennan

Was Wednesday night Arizona's most impressive win of the season?

That might be pushing it, I admit. But New Mexico State -- held to just 48 points in 62 possessions in Tucson, Ariz., Wednesday -- is a good team, a good program, the WAC's best of the past five seasons and a three-time tournament team since 2009-10. Arizona treated the Aggies like something out of Division III.

Sean Miller's team was good offensively, of course; you can't really blow out a capable team like that if you're not scoring with ease. (That was never more true than when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did … well, just watch.) But even as the Wildcats took their time figuring out NMSU's well-conceived, off-kilter defense in the first half, they maintained a mostly comfortable lead by doing what they've done best in 2013-14: playing defense.

This is an easy point to lose amid all of the Aaron Gordon (and Hollis-Jefferson) highlights: The Wildcats are a much better defensive team than they were a year ago. Last season, they hovered around the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In 2013-14, they’re No. 5 overall. Thus far, Arizona is holding opponents to just 40.3 percent shooting from inside the arc and 27.2 percent outside of it, the product of a defensive reorientation that Stan Van Gundy could love.

Van Gundy's Orlando Magic teams were probably the first NBA teams to understand one of the core truths behind offense: midrange scoring is less efficient. The ease of layups and dunks is wiped away; the reward of three points is not a factor. So Van Gundy's best defenses, anchored by Dwight Howard in the middle, obsessively pressured the perimeter, happy to close out a little too hard if it meant giving up an 18-foot jumper instead of a 3.

Kentucky's 2011-12 national championship group was wired similarly. With Anthony Davis blocking everything in sight, UK's perimeter defenders could rush 3-point shooters and force them to put the ball on the floor. According to Hoop-Math.com, that team forced 39.2 percent of opponents' shots to come from midrange. It blocked 20.3 percent of them, which is completely insane, and opponents shot just 26.7.

In a much smaller sample size, the 2013-14 Wildcats have been even better at forcing opponents into inefficient choices. To date, 52.1 percent of shots by Arizona's foes have come in the midrange, and just 32.1 percent of those shots have connected. Arizona allows just 18.9 percent of field goal attempts at or around the rim. Thanks to the arrival of Gordon, as well as improved interior defense from just about everybody, it blocks a high rate of both kinds of attempts.

The development of Nick Johnson has been huge, and the arrival of T.J. McConnell has given the Wildcats a cohesion-minded distributor to help keep everything aligned. If Arizona goes to Ann Arbor, Mich., this weekend and comes away with one of the most impressive nonconference victories of the season, those will be among the storylines. Gordon will be sure to provide highlights since NBA scouts will be in the building.

But the biggest difference between the merely good team of 2012-13 and the national title contender you see now goes beyond the immediately obvious. The real reason Miller's team has been the premier outfit of November and December is defense. The Wildcats are dictating terms.