Opposition Q&A: Adam Butler of PacHoops on Michigan-Arizona

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Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley

Adam Butler of Pac Hoops blogs about Pac-12 basketball with a focus on the Arizona Wildcats. Butler took the time to answer a few questions about the Wildcats before Saturday’s big game in Ann Arbor. We discuss what makes No. 1 Arizona so deadly and what some of the keys are for Michigan to knock off the Wildcats.

Defense and rebounding appear to be what makes Arizona elite. What has allowed a fairly average defense a year ago to defend the rim so well this year?

As my old baseball coach used to say, “Everything stems from the hill.” Which is to say that the man with the ball (point guard in basketball terms) sets the team’s tone. So when TJ McConnell became the primary ball handler of Sean Miller’s team, the defensive tone of this group changed. There’s been some roster turnover that has lent itself to defensive success but I’d really like to give McConnell a lot of credit here. With regards to the rim, this team has length for days and the defensive fingerprint is such that Arizona already limits shots at the rim (just 19.6% of shots against them are at the rim). And then they start seven-feet, six-nine, six-eight, with Nick Johnson who can jump out of the gym and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s 7’2” wingspan off the bench. No easy buckets.

Aaron Gordon is a likely top-10 pick next year. What makes him special and where does he excel?

While ESPN and other syndications want to make this the year of the freshman and perhaps rightfully so, Gordon is different than the Parkers, Wiggins, and Randles of the NCAA. He’s not nearly as polished but he doesn’t stop. He goes and goes and when your projected lottery pick calls himself a “glue guy” you know you have someone special. He’s arguably the most athletic of that bunch but we don’t need to compare him. He’s definitively unique in that he excels as the glue guy. He leads the team in put backs and the glass. People love to toss around the word “motor” and, well watch for yourself and let me know what you think.

John Beilein has raved about Arizona’s backcourt as much as its frontcourt, who do Michigan fans need to be familiar with in the backcourt?

That’s where Arizona’s maturity is. Between three year starter, Nick Johnson, and junior TJ McConnell – who is in his fourth year in college – this backcourt plays just a shade under all of the minutes. Miller’s had the opportunity to sit these guys but when push comes to shove (say…Duke in Madison Square Garden where TJ and Nick played 39 and 31 minutes respectively) they are going to be central to whatever Arizona does. I think Johnson is the best player on this team, but TJ is the most important.

Arizona’s offense appears to be its Achilles’ heel as the Wildcats have struggled a bit offensively against Drexel, Duke and UNLV. What causes the offensive hiccups for Arizona?

Early on, like before games were played, everyone wanted to talk about Arizona’s inability to shoot the ball. To date, that hasn’t necessarily been the problem for the Wildcats. They’ve hit 37.6% of their threes which they’ve limited to just 28% of their offense. Perimeter shooting hasn’t really been the issue. The problem – particularly in those games you listed – has been the turnover bug. In those games, Arizona had 14, 16, and 14 respectively and certainly in the bookends of those stats, there was a stiff amount of turnovers in a single half; a half that not coincidentally coincided with outrageous shooting. That said, I still think the Wildcats are susceptible to a zone or a defense that forces them to get away from all that size and ability to score around the rim.

Pretend you are coaching against Arizona, what are the top three items on your game plan?

  1. Pack the lane – Don’t let the big men beat you and make Arizona shoot their way to victory. The stats don’t totally support this theory but trust me on this one, Arizona is going to have some games where they struggle from distance. They did that against Drexel (3-13 from 3FG) and UNLV (3-16). Those were Arizona’s two toughest games.
  2. Rebound – The ‘Cats might miss some shots but they’re grabbing enough offensive boards to compensate. They rate 11th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. What’s more – and to be honest I don’t have great context to this stat – 8.4% of Arizona’s offense comes off of put backs. By comparison, Michigan’s put back offense is at 6.5%. Ohio State’s is 8.2% and Arizona State’s is 3.8%. We call that rivalry context.
  3. Force turnovers – Like I mentioned, Arizona has demonstrated some propensity to cough the ball up and some opponents – the good shooting ones – have managed to translate that in to more points.

How do you see Saturday’s game playing out and who is Arizona’s x-factor?

I see this being a very difficult game for the Wildcats. The Wolverines shoot the ball very well and garner the missed shots well, too. With regards to the rebounding, Arizona is the 11th best team at grabbing O-boards while UM is the 13th best at not letting O-boards get grabbed. I really think that could be the crux of the matter in this matchup. If Michigan can hang with the Wildcats on the glass, limiting their extra possessions while hitting from the perimeter, it could wind up being a long afternoon for the Wildcats. The X-factor in all of this is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He did this and has the ability to guard up and down a lineup and has a nose for the rim.

What’s Arizona’s ceiling? Who is most likely to determine how far the Wildcats go?

Arizona can reach their ceiling atop a Werner ladder in Dallas. That’s how good, dynamic, and skilled this team is. One of the things I like the most about this team is that they are wildly balanced. Any given guy can beat you but collectively they’re going to come together to defend their basket as well as any team in the country. But if we’re looking to point fingers, the single guy that will determine how far they go is going to be TJ McConnell. He left Duquesne to play for bigger moments and thus far he’s lived up to that desire. Against Duke, the junior point guard scored 10 points, grabbed 6 boards, and assisted 8 more baskets. He played 39 minutes and Arizona needed all of that tick. Then, in their next tightest contest, McConnell had two huge baskets and assists down the clutch stretch against UNLV. He’d finish that game with 13/7/6. There are a lot of very good players in the cardinal and navy, but McConnell makes them go.

  • Fred Z in Ann Arbor

    1) Appreciate the lack of boosterism in the Arizona guy’s self-appraisal.
    2) I am worried about the Wolverines in this game mostly because we are still looking for our identity.

  • Mattski

    Thanks for helping to set the table Adam and Dylan. I am really looking forward to this game. Beilein has played almost everyone tough with this much time to prepare. Poorly as we played at Duke, I thought that game anomalous for several reasons (Stauskas’ recovery from injury, McGary’s continued recovery, the five points gifted to Duke early and their psychological effect. . .) Not that we’d have won or that this team is headed for greatness, but I think we’ll have a much better sense of how successful they can be after Saturday.

  • DingoBlue

    A) Thanks to Adam for providing a PAC-12 insight to this matchup.
    B) Glad someone else is calling out ESPN’s ridiculous “year of the freshmen” deal they have going on. I understand they are all good players, but just because your recruiting guys and NBA guys have been saying “The 2014 Draft is THE DRAFT” really gets frustrating.
    C) “Pack the Lane” I have a hard time seeing this as how Beilein will coach the defense in prep for Arizona. I would agree that it’s a key, but I think Beilein may focus more on defensive rebounding rather than preventing ‘Zona from getting into the lane.

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      Defensive rebounding will certainly be key but packing the lane seems like it should help defending Arizona’s bigs but also with defensive rebounding, no?

      • DingoBlue

        I definitely agree the two go hand in had. Just trying to think the last time Michigan’s defensive strategy was packing the lane. It could be more common than I’m remembering.

        • mikey_mac

          When the team is playing man-to-man, it’s not always that easy to spot this strategy. The easiest way to tell is when your immediate reaction to a closeout on a corner shooter is bewilderment and/or rage because of how late it was.

    • geoffclarke

      I was going to say going to zone is NOT the answer…if you think Arizona can offensive rebound well, wait until they get to do it against a zone. And as previous posts suggested, zone is not Michigan’s best defense.

      • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

        True… the theory behind zone would be that turnovers could be a great equalizer. Arizona can be loose with the ball and it could be a Florida State type effect. But as we wrote the other day… Michigan’s zone isn’t really that good.

        • mikey_mac

          Yes, UM’s zone defense is the thing that will get me banned from this site for trolling.

    • awbutler25

      A) Pleasure
      B) Year of the Freshman makes me uncomfortable. Put Marcus Smart on TV!
      C) Pack the Lane would be a general way to slow Arizona. I’m a huge proponent of not necessarily scheming to one’s opponent and would urge Michigan to do what they do best: Rebound, limit FTs, rain threes.

  • geoffclarke

    I admit I haven’t see Arizona at all this year, but doesn’t the description of Gordon remind you of McGary? Not the physical tools – I’ve seen Gordon a couple time on TV last year – but the fact that your (arguably) best player is also the guy who’s hustling the most and sounds like the best teammate.

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      He’s smaller (plays the three) and a better athlete but there are some similarities (he’s awful at the free throw line too!)… The kind of guy that can really excel as a freshman because he doesn’t need a lot from other guys.

      Glenn isn’t described as a hustle guy but he’s similar in a lot of ways too because he just fit in last year… He didn’t need anyone to do anything special, he just made his teammates better by being in the right spot to finish.

    • Kam

      Mitch is far more skilled. gordon is also only 6’8 but far more athletic

    • guestavo

      I don’t think Gordon is their best player. I’d put Nick Johnson and Rondae above him, to be truthful.

  • Kam

    The scariest thing is Gordon who is 6’8 plays the 3.. That means Caris Nik or whoever is at the 3 matched against him BETTER box out and even if they do he will most likely jump over them. Brandon ashley at the 4 who is also around 6’8 and extremely long will be matched against Glenn and Irvin.. We had better box out. I wonder if they do that Gordon post up who’s ever on him since we don’t have any 3s who can handle him down there

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      The question becomes whether Gordon has the discipline to chase Nik/Caris around, defend ball screens, etc. on the other end.

      • Kam

        Thats true although he did a great job on parker when they played duke.. The difference is Caris and Nik use ball screens and off ball screens as you mentioned.. Parker just basically did iso!

      • Kam

        Yeah… I wonder who will get gordon.. JB has said he thinks Nick Johnson(6’3) is their best player offensively, so I’m wondering does caris get him and Nik take Gordon.. Because offensively Gordon is just put backs and cuts. Nik cant fall asleep. Nick is extremely fast and i don’t think Nik could stay with him.. But caris hasnt been the greatest on defense either.. Ive said I liked our chances against Duke away more than Zona at home. I just think they are a matchup nightmare for us

        • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

          Caris has to guard Johnson IMO. Don’t think Michigan has anyone else with the tools to keep up with him.

          • Kam

            I agree 100% but Nik has been known to fall asleep on the boards and forget people cutting which will make Gordons eyes light up. I just hate this match up haha. If we win it will be a huge step forward IMO

      • awbutler25

        I could see a lot of Hollis-Jefferson on Stauskas. He’s long and very athletic.

        • Kam

          i agree

      • AlwaysBlue

        My question is if Nik will run around. I mentioned it earlier but heard it on the podcast today too…I would really like Nik to be more Rip/Reggie like. I was very disappointed with his Duke game.

    • guestavo

      Gordon isn’t much of a post up guy, honestly none of their bigs are skilled in the post.

      • J

        Brandon Ashley would beg to differ.

        • guestavo

          He doesn’t have good footwork either.

          • J

            “One of things that’s interesting about our offense is that Brandon is, by far, the most efficient player we have,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “His field goal percentage is right around 60 and when we get the ball to him around the basket, a lot of good things are happening.”

            “Ashley has good hands and feet…” – Doug Gottlieb

            “Athletically, he has good quickness, bounce, and excellent timing around the basket. He has very good feet and utilizes the spin move in the post to free him from defenders. His ball skills have improved…” – ESPN Recruiting Profile

            I don’t think you’ve watched him enough. He doesn’t have an elite post-game, but it is good.

          • guestavo

            Literally none of that has to do with post moves or footwork. Dude is a long run and jump athlete who is good at finishing around the basket. He couldn’t execute a post move to save his life.

          • Ben Cardamone

            To save his life? Have you seen a second of Arizona basketball this year guestavo?

          • guestavo

            I’ve seen around 5 games. None of your players are great at executing post moves.

          • J

            Yeah, you’re right… “Good things” happening “when we get the ball to him around the basket”… “He has very good FEET and utilizes the spin move in the POST to free him from defenders”… Has “good FEET and hands”… Those have nothing to do with POST moves or FOOTwork at all… O.o.

            “Good FOOTwork, solid drop step.”

            “(Ashley’s) got great hands, good FOOTwork and can finish,” coach Michael Peck said.

            Maybe you’re confusing him with McGary in relation to a post game? :P

          • guestavo

            Around the basket meaning finishing around the rim and a spin move is not a post move it’s a face up move. None of your bigs can post up, give it up…

          • J

            “19% of Ashley’s offensive possessions come in the low post and he’s Arizona’s most effective option on the low-block (22 points on 19 post-ups)…”

            His spin move comes from the top of the key into the lane or from the 45 block in the POST. For watching 5 Arizona games, I wonder if you weren’t actually watching ASU. And, what part of “solid drop step” do you not understand?

            “Tarczewski is a more traditional back-to-basket big man and rim protector, 49% of his offensive possessions are post ups and he scores .82 points per post-up (43rd percentile).”

            Yeah… None of the bigs can post up… O.o. Nobody said they were Olajuwon, but you need to open your eyes a bit.

          • guestavo

            You do realize those numbers aren’t good?

          • J

            You realize your argument was that Ashley has bad post moves and footwork… And, implied that Tarczewski has a weak post game.

            Both Ashley and Tarczewski are better than the median with regard to points per post-up (.86 and .82 for 43%+ percentile). In other words… Better than average.

            Educate yourself on the numbers versus what you’re actually saying. Today, both Ashley and Tarc showed you a little of what you mistakenly said they lacked.

          • guestavo

            You didn’t watch the game.

          • J

            Haven’t missed a game in years. You’re wrong, and that’s OK. Admitting that both have an adequate post game, and that Ashley’s footwork is just fine isn’t going to make you explode.

            Not only have I given you the statements from analysts and coaches that directly oppose what you’ve said and listed actual post-up stats, both players showed you some posts moves (and Ashley footwork) today.

            Before you start redirecting your faulty argument into the direction of how often Ashley will post-up, remember your original post about the subject.

            If you’re so confident in your statements, please visit the GOAZCATS.com forums and start the discussion over there. You will get a fair analysis, because a number of people there almost seem anti-Arizona at times even though they are fans.

            Sack up, and come on over. :)

  • awbutler25

    Big thanks, Dylan, for getting me involved. Curious what kind of atmosphere we’ll see at the Crisler Center? Is school in session?

    • geoffclarke

      Looks like students start exams tomorrow and have them next week. This game should be a nice break and stress-reliever for them. Should be a really hype atmosphere. I’ll do my part.

    • mikey_mac

      Crisler isn’t typically an inhospitable environment for visitors, but the crowd will be up for this one.

      • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

        It’s been pretty good lately, no?

        It’s not Assembly Hall but Michigan has only lost one game there each of the last two years.

        • mikey_mac

          Maybe I shouldn’t put a split between the environment itself and how well UM plays there, but that’s what I was trying to get across. There are dozens of courts you would consider a tougher road environment, but UM has been sneaky good on its home floor.

          • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

            Fair point. Just think that Crisler has come a long way since 4-5 years ago when it wasn’t anything to write home about.

      • Adam St Patrick

        For a big game, everyone will be up for it. A friend who likes to see plenty of live college ball was in town for M/OSU with last year and said pregame was as loud as he’s seen in a while. Then again we were just one section over from the students in the upper deck.

  • Chezaroo

    Transition defense.

  • Michigan4

    Even with the issues UM has experienced this year playing zone, this seems like the perfect type of of game to play quite a bit of zone. Arizona is really too big for UM to go man to man full time. They also don’t have too many threats from the outside so I think we will see some variations of zone defense. As always with a zone, finding a man and boxing out after missed shots will be huge. On the other hand, maybe Beilein will decide to play 2 bigs most of the game.

    • Michigan4

      One other thing is that Arizona seems to only have 1 or 2 ball handlers on the court at most times. If UM were to go to the 1-3-1 that could result in a lot of turnovers.

      • awbutler25

        Both of your thoughts are correct. Johnson and McConnell can handle the ball fine and Gordon can handle it on the break. As I told Dylan, there’s been a propensity to cough it up. A lot of those turnovers have come on “aggressive mistakes” but they are mistakes nonetheless. Turning Arizona over and keeping them off the glass is imperative for Michigan.

        • Michigan4

          This was a very fun read, by the way. Thanks to you and Dylan both for putting this together.

    • mikey_mac

      Somebody, hold me back!

      • Michigan4

        Hah, I see I missed the conversation below. My thinking with UM playing 1-3-1 in this game is that Arizona doesn’t have the type of perimeter threats to make UM pay as Duke did. With the exception of Johnson, there aren’t too many players to hit the corner three that UM always seems to give up in the 1-3-1.

        • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

          Gabe York is the other guy they’d throw in there. He’s been slumping a bit but is a heavy 3-point guy.

          • awbutler25

            I’ve been known to say that Gordon makes Arizona very good but York makes them elite. It’s hyperbole and premature but if he can give some semblance of a 3pt threat off the bench then it makes the game that much easier for AZ.

            Also considering stealing Stauskas…

          • mikey_mac

            Not sure if you’ve heard, but Stauskas is More Than Just a Jump Shooter™!

          • awbutler25

            So I’m learning. But he’s still a fine shooter.

        • mikey_mac

          Yeah, I’m just kidding. You make great points and the strategy seems sound. Just get them to play it well.

          • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

            There’s the troubling data point that last year’s group didn’t play it well either… It’s a tricky scenario and the data is probably flawed because Michigan *only* plays it when its already having defensive trouble.

          • mikey_mac

            I agree that it probably skews the numbers some, but if you compare their PPPs within only games where they played some zone, I’m fairly sure you will still see worse numbers for zone than man.

            At least all the national commentators don’t always taut JB’s vaunted 1-3-1!

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Arizona looks tough, not too confident going into this game….but in Ann Arbor anything can happen, I feel like we are going to get exposed downlow especially if Mitch gets into foul trouble…im sure Arizona will be favorite to win this by 8 or more pts

    • Guest

      You don’t gamble do you? This will be a 1-3 point spread in either direction.

  • mikey_mac

    Also, this blog’s comments section would literally melt Disqus’ servers if GR3 did that Hollis-Jefferson crossover drive and dunk. I would put it on my xmas cards instead of my son.

    • serious

      I think this is what upvotes are for.

    • BlueBear_E

      Some are going to say this is an outrageous comment, but the highlight shown above is not all that different than a play that Nik Stauskas made in the FSU game. Started on the opposite wing, refused the screen and dunked over two help defenders.

      • captincork

        I don’t think it is outrageous, as the play was set up similarly, but Nik did not finish his drive by posterizing two FSU defenders.

  • guestavo

    We have to hit our shots at a high clip in the halfcourt to limit transition opportunities. We also have to get out in transition and score easy buckets before they can set up defensively.

  • j c

    Just to add to the analysis: The thing about AZ is that we really have 7 starters (talent-wise). Not to be a homer, but AZ has had 5 different players lead AZ in scoring, and 5 different players lead AZ in rebounds. And none of that really take into consideration the dramatic role of TJ. The balance cannot be overlooked. Eight out of our 10 games have seen 4-6 players in double digits for scoring. It has got to be a tall order for opposing coaches to try and figure out which AZ player is going to carry the flag in any particular game. All of that being said, this game is going to be great. I see UM really taking it to AZ. And if UM can pull it off, I don’t think it will be because AZ gave it to them. Turnovers will be key. If UM can force 14+, I think that could tip the scales. Good luck, tons of respect!

  • YEEHAWMAN

    Arizona fan here, how is your 1-3-1 zone defense? That’s the only thing that will screw with us and I hope you learned it from jim boeheim (lol)

    Duke tried zone… dear god that was a melt down

    for the record, i picked you guys to win.

  • Brandon Duenas

    AZ fan here… good luck Michigan. We won’t be taking you guys lightly at all. Definitely know how talented you guys are. Should be a good one.

  • Baddabing

    I enjoyed that analysis, even as an Arizona fan. Looking forward to this series with you guys.

  • macjones

    My bad for playing the NEGATIVE Wilbur and what not. But the Wildcat’s abso-LUTE-ly must hit their FT’s on Saturday afternoon. Especially if this highly anticipated game against Michigan comes down to the last three or four minutes.

  • macjones

    Is Bill ” MAN TO MAN ” Rafferty going to be sitting court side on Saturday. hUh

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