The Arizona Wildcats and their stressful relationship with the three ball

The Arizona Wildcats are 14-0, but some of the games have been more exciting than they would have hoped.  In the last week, Sean Miller’s team has beaten Colorado and Utah in tight contests at home.  Beating Colorado took a furious comeback and a bit of luck — officials waved off a buzzer beater by Colorado guard Sabatino Chen after a video review — and the outcome against Utah could have been different if Jarred DuBois had been able to hit a last second three with the potential to send the game into overtime.  Arizona games have been stressful, and Wildcat fans can be forgiven if they don’t quite feel like their team is as good as its record indicates.

What has made these games so stressful?  First and foremost, it has been the three point shot.  Miller’s team shoots a lot of them, with 38 percent of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc, and they are pretty good at them, knocking down 38 percent of their attempts from long distance.  The five Wildcats with the most shot attempts all take more than 40 percent of their attempts from three point range.  Arizona will shoot the three in almost any situation.  They are every bit as likely to hoist them up in transition as in the half court, with 44 percent of the Wildcat’s transition attempts off of defensive rebounds or opponent made baskets coming from downtown.  Arizona’s offense is geared towards the three ball.

In the games against Colorado and Utah, the Wildcats are a combined 15-45 (33%) from three point range.  This is not bad by any means, and it is an entirely reasonable result to get over 45 shots from a team that averages 38 percent three point shooting on the season.  Results are variable over selected samples — this is just the way things work.  But this variability hasn’t worked in Arizona’s favor this week.  One of the most potent aspects of the Wildcat offense — the three ball — hasn’t been particularly potent to start Pac 12 play.

The three point shot has also bitten Coach Miller’s team at the other end of the floor.  Colorado was 10-21 (48%) against Arizona, while the Utes were 7-16 (44%) from long distance.  The Buffaloes took 36 percent of their total shots from three point range, while Utah attempted 33 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.  These values are typical for Arizona; on the season, Wildcat opponents have taken 35 percent of their shots as threes and have made these shots 37 percent of the time.

The Arizona defense is geared to aggressively protect the rim, and the Wildcats are effective at this.  On the season, Arizona opponents have only attempted 23 percent of their attempts from in close, which is well below the typical 34 percent of shots that are taken at the bucket in D-I ball.  This ranks Miller’s squad No. 16 in the nation when it comes to limiting opponent chances from in close.  The Wildcat defense of the rim is accomplished in four ways:

1. Arizona does an outstanding job of limiting opponent shots in transition.  On the season, only 21 percent of initial shots against the Wildcats come in transition situations, where transition shots are defined as attempts that occur within the first ten seconds after steals, made baskets, or rebounds.  Across Division I, these transition attempts account for about 28 percent of initial shot attempts.  

2.  Arizona makes defending the hoop in transition a priority.  Only 31 percent of initial opponent transition shots come at the rim, compared with the 44 percent average for D-I.

3.  Coach Miller’s team also limits chances at the rim in half-court.  Looking at non-transition situations, 20 percent of initial shots come at the rim against the Wildcats, compared with a national average of 27 percent.

4.  Arizona rebounds very well, limiting second chance shots that are frequently from in close.  The Wildcat’s currently rank No. 14 in the nation with a defensive rebounding percentage of 74 percent.  Their ability to rebound defensively is also helped by preventing initial attempts from in close in the first place, as misses at the rim are far more likely to lead to offensive rebounds than missed jump shots.

Arizona’s defensive approach is sound.  Focusing your defense on rim protection makes a lot of sense.  But a natural consequence of this approach is that opponents are likely to get off a few more three point shots.  Against the Wildcats, these threes are coming particularly often in transition.  After rebounding an Arizona miss, 42 percent of the initial opponent attempts in transition have been threes, compared with the average of 38 percent.  Additionally, 53 percent of opponent transition shots after a Wildcat basket have been from long range, compared with the D-I average of 42 percent.  Miller’s team hasn’t given up an excessive number of three point shots in half court situations, allowing only 33 percent of opponent initial attempts to take place from beyond the arc, compared with the NCAA average of 35 percent, but they aren’t exactly limiting opponent three point attempts the way a team like Duke does.

Arizona’s approach to basketball on both offense and defense can turn games into three point shooting contests.  The Wildcats are good in these contests, but the games will likely continue to be stressful.