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No. 4 Arizona overcomes 19 point deficit, proves defense is how they’ll win games

Nov 27, 2013, 9:38 PM EST

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — No. 4 Arizona came out like they were more concerned with where they were going to eat Thanksgiving dinner than the Drexel Dragons on Wednesday night.

Thanks to the hot hands of Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat, the Wildcats found themselves in a 27-8 hole 13 minutes into the game. They were 2-for-17 from the floor with six turnovers at that point, finishing without a single assist in the first half. That’s about as ugly as it gets.

“It’s easy to say Arizona was overlooking Drexel but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after the game. The Wildcats knew what they were getting into, and while it took some time, the Wildcats would eventually wake up, cranking up their defense and holding Drexel to just four points over the next 12 minutes of game time. Arizona finally took a 33-31 lead — a 25-4 run — with 15 minutes left in the game. The Dragons fought for as long as they could, but Kaleb Tarczewski was too much in the post and Nick Johnson made a number of big plays down the stretch en route to a well-earned, 66-62 win.

Johnson would finished with 20 points, five boards and four assists while Tarczewski chipped in with 15 points, 13 coming in the second half, and 10 boards. Aaron Gordon added 10 points and 13 boards.

Drexel may not have earned the win, but they sure did provide future opponents with a blueprint as to how to beat Arizona.

The Wildcats are a talented group, but much of that talent manifests itself in length and athleticism. In other words, Arizona’s potential is off the charts, but this is not the most skilled offensive team that we’ve ever seen.

Think about it. Who scares you in a half court set on this roster? Who do the Wildcats give the ball to at the end of a clock? T.J. McConnell is a terrific facilitator and defender, but he’s not a break-down-the-defense kind of point guard. Gordon will be a star one day, but he still has a ways to go to realize that potential. Gabe York is a jump-shooter. Do you run your offense through postmen Brandon Ashely and Tarczewski? As good as Nick Johnson as played this season, he’s more of a secondary option, a complimentary piece, than he is a primary scorer.

And Drexel is one of the toughest, most physical defenses teams that you’ll come across. They control the pace, they control possession in the half court and they make trying to run offense miserable against them. In the first half, Arizona’s offensive rhythm was non-existent, as they finished the half shooting just 6-for-23 from the field. In the second half, the Wildcats started pounding the ball into Tarczewski, who Drexel was guarding 1-on-1, and that began to loosen things up. It also helped that Drexel’s big three — Fouch, Massenat and Damion Lee — cooled off after a sizzling start.

When the Wildcats get themselves into trouble is when they get away from moving the ball and running their offense.

“For the first time I think it was our offense,” Johnson said of Arizona’s struggles in the first half. “We just had to calm down. We know we could play with anyone in the country, just don’t get fancy on offense.”

“We were much more willing too share the ball and pass it [after halftime],” Miller said. “No team is going to function at the highest level when individuals try to force plays.”

As Johnson noted, Arizona had to “stick to their identity”. And for all the hype and attention that Arizona will get this year, their bread and butter will be on the defensive end of the floor. That’s where they will win games. “We have to defend,” Miller said. “We have to be an elite rebounding team.” They just don’t have the offensive weapons that a team like Duke does.

And after getting punched in the mouth for 13 minutes, that’s precisely who Arizona was. All that length and athleticism will look good on the fast break and in Sportscenter highlight packages, but where it will really have an effect on the game is defensively. Nick Johnson is a sensational on-ball defender, and T.J. McConnell isn’t bad himself. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon are both playmakers on that end, while Kaleb Tarczewski is the physical rim-protector and low block presence that can anchor a defense.

Perhaps more impressive is that Arizona has as much lineup versatility as anyone in the country. If they play a team that goes small against them — like, oh I don’t know, Duke? — the Wildcats can go with three guards and put Gordon at the four, or even the five if needed. But against a bigger team? It’s not ideal, but Arizona has used a lineup that featured the 6-foot-9 Gordon and the 6-foot-6 Hollis-Jefferson on the wing with Ashley and Tarczewski up front.

College basketball is all about style of play, matchups and taking advantage of mismatches, and there aren’t many teams that will have a mismatch against the Wildcats.

What’s that mean?

You may be able to stifle Arizona on the offensive end of the floor, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to score on them.