You may not have been watching or even thinking about college hoops on Christmas day, but if you were you know that Arizona can thank Nick Johnson for being ranked No. 3 in the nation.
That was the day the Wildcats played San Diego State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. With the Aztecs trailing 68-67 and less than five seconds remaining in the contest, Chase Tapley had what he thought was a clear path to an uncontested and, most likely, game-winning layup for SDSU. But that was before Johnson made a game-saving block for the Wildcats. Take it from Tapley, it was a pretty amazing play:
"I didn't even know he [Johnson] was around. He just came out of nowhere. I'm thinking the game is over. The next thing you know the ball is going off the backboard."
Thanks to Johnson's heroics, UA enters Pac-12 play 12-0 and ranked behind only Duke and Michigan in the national polls. The lofty ranking given to Sean Miller's team strikes me as somewhat ironic. On the one hand, No. 3 in the nation is a little too high for this young team. On the other hand, I can easily envision Arizona as the nation's third-best team -- or better -- before all is said and done in 2012-13.
Our shared fascination with running the table
In January what I like to call the Cult of the Undefeated reaches its highest level of influence. There are usually a few teams remaining who are undefeated, and that is of course very impressive. But the correlation between being undefeated and your team's ranking is often just a little too strong in January.
This is particularly true in a case like Arizona's, where the Wildcats have recorded two of their wins in games that came down to the final possession. (And one of those victories, UA's thrilling 65-64 win over Florida, came at home.) That's not to take anything away from winning all your games. Winning is the whole point of this here sport. But once we give due credit for an undefeated record in January, we can also remark rather mundanely that there are just two possibilities in play here.
One possibility is that one of Division I's remaining four unbeaten teams -- Duke, Michigan, Arizona, or Wyoming -- is about to make history and join the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers by recording a perfect season, one that culminates in a national championship. Then there's the more likely scenario, the one where all of these teams will at some point lose a game.
In the latter scenario, it won't matter much how far into the season any of these teams made it before suffering their first loss. For instance in 2008-09 Clemson famously made it all the way to the second week of January before losing a game -- and then very nearly missed the NCAA tournament entirely. Barring a catastrophic onset of injuries, there is zero chance that a Clemson-like fate awaits the likes of Duke, Michigan, or Arizona, but the lesson to be drawn from this cautionary tale is a sound one. In January we're all a tiny bit too impressed with a zero in the loss column.
So in the narrow sense, Arizona is indeed "overrated" at No. 3 in the country. Outscoring a fairly tough but by no means Duke-like schedule by 0.25 points per possession, as the Wildcats have done, is sufficient in my book to land you in the top 10 with room to spare, but it's not quite on par with what one-loss teams like Louisville and Kansas have shown us thus far.
Fair enough, now here's the bad news for UA's Pac-12 rivals. Forget No. 3, I can envision this team being No. 1 in the nation if they can just be "average" in one feature of the game.
Possession is nine-tenths of the (basketball) law
For a team that missed the NCAA tournament last season, Arizona has charted a dramatic turnaround, one that's been powered not only by a very talented freshman class but also by significant improvements in performance on both sides of the ball.
That being said, the biggest jump in performance compared to last season has clearly been on offense. In 2011-12, this was merely the fifth-best offense in a conference widely viewed as a disappointment.
What a difference a year makes. Miller now has what is plainly one of the nation's top offenses, one that hits shots from both sides of the arc, pounds the offensive glass, and gets to the line frequently. In fact the only thing holding this offense back is turnovers. Thus far on the young season Arizona has scored 1.44 points per turnover-less, or "effective" possession, an extraordinary figure that beats anything recorded last season by 74 teams in major-conference play. And by "anything recorded," I specifically mean, yes, even better than what Kentucky posted last season in SEC play (1.41).
Just how badly is Arizona being hurt by turnovers? Here's the calculation that I guarantee you has already been made by the UA coaching staff. The Wildcats are currently scoring 1.13 points per possession, having committed a turnover on 21 percent of their trips. If, for the sake of discussion, they could bring that turnover rate down to last season's overall major-conference average (19 percent), Miller's team would be scoring a rather astonishing 1.17 points per trip. And while that may not seem like an especially large difference, those extra points need to be seen in the context of a team that has won two of its 12 games by one point. Besides, the key word there is "average." By merely being as good as most teams at taking care of the ball, the Wildcats can reap returns that no other team could achieve.
A balanced offense with star players
Since I've already cited the example of Kentucky last season, allow me to flag one other similarity between the two groups of Wildcats. Like UK in 2011-12, UA is showing a marked degree of balance on offense. Don't look for one Arizona player to dominate this team's attack like, say, Russ Smith does for Louisville, or Doug McDermott does for Creighton. Miller's leading scorer, Mark Lyons, averages just 13 points a game. Lyons, Brandon Ashley, Nick Johnson, and Solomon Hill have all taken turns this season leading the team in scoring on a given evening.
For the most part those are simply the UA players who are earning the most minutes. But note that if nominal sixth man Kevin Parrom were given the opportunity, there's little doubt that he too could post game-high numbers for points. The 6-6 senior is having what can fairly be termed the mother of all "Put me in, Coach" seasons, hitting 59 percent of his twos and 47 percent of his threes while also posting one of the team's highest assist rates.
And while heralded freshman Kaleb Tarczewski has a high turnover rate on paper, in truth this is partly the residue of an unfortunate five-turnover effort in just 26 minutes against Southern Miss. In the past six games, conversely, the seven-footer has been on the floor for 218 offensive possessions and committed just seven turnovers. That's important, because Tarczewski is an excellent offensive rebounder. Miller certainly does not lack for weapons this season.
Arizona opens Pac-12 play this week with home games against Colorado and Utah. If you catch either or both of these games, be sure to note how many turnovers the Wildcats record. There's a good chance that number will have a direct bearing on UA's fortunes the rest of the way in 2012-13.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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