The Arizona Wildcats are 7-0. Seeing Sean Miller's program succeed is nothing new. It's how they're getting there that makes them so dangerous in March.
Miller's Arizona teams, from the moment he took over in 2009-10, have been excellent shooting teams, especially from three-point range. Even his initial squad, which finished 16-15, managed to shoot just under 36 percent from three. By the following season, when Arizona came within a basket of the Final Four, they shot 39.7 percent from long range. And this season, through seven games, they aren't far from that pace, at 38.8 percent.
"We invest a ton of time shooting in the spring," Miller told me when we chatted last week at the Mariott Marquis, prior to Arizona winning the preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden this past weekend. "It's the focus for us, in terms of coaching our players and developing them. And so much of their development stems from their ability to make free throws, to make open threes, to just have a better feel shooting the ball."
But what makes Arizona so dangerous this season is an element found frequently on Miller's Xavier teams, but not since he moved to Tucson: these Wildcats can really defend.
Ask Duke, which lost to Arizona in the NIT final, 72-66. The Blue Devils entered the game shooting better than 53 percent from the field, and 44.7 percent from three. They shot 44 percent overall, less than 29 percent from three. Dominant freshman Jabari Parker, who'd shot 60 percent in his first seven games, including 9-for-18 against Andrew Wiggins and Kansas, shot 7-for-21. He did not make a three-pointer.
"Two things you can't practice against are quickness and length," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said when it was over. "We have quickness. We don't have length. They have great length on their team."
That is most noticeable in center Kaleb Tarczewski, a true seven-footer. But the Arizona skill set as a whole is personified by Aaron Gordon, a freshman every bit as worthy of early praise as Parker, or Wiggins, or Kentucky's Julius Randle.
Gordon's defense is as impressive a part of his game as his offense. He's shooting better than 48 percent overall, and north of 55 percent from three. But he's also blocking shots at nearly as prolific a rate as Tarczewski, and rebounding at the highest rate among Arizona's starters.
"Just to contest the ball is part of my nature," Gordon told me last week when we chatted prior to the NIT. "I don't like to let the ball go by me. It's just part of playing basketball. It's just something that I love to do."
Arguably, Gordon's block late in the game against Duke is what sealed it, after his surge of offense earlier in a second half in which he played every second helped give Arizona the lead. With around 45 seconds left, and Duke down six, Quinn Cook drove to the hoop.
Any number of things could have gone wrong there. Without a center in the game at that point, Cook simply could have scored to cut the lead to four. A defender coming over to help, as Gordon did, could have fouled Cook as he made the layup, allowing Duke to make the contest a single-possession game. Even a foul to stop the clock would have improved Duke's chances of coming back.
Instead, the freshman playing his seventh collegiate game waited just long enough to block Cook's shot. He didn't launch it into the stands, instead tapping it to teammate Gabe York, who then wisely dribbled until he was fouled.
It would be easy, and wrong, to say that Gordon's defense is what stopped Parker. It was a team effort on the freshman, which reflects the kind of effort Miller's team is putting in on that end of the court.
Consider that back in 2010-11, the Arizona Miller team that had the most success in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats ranked 147th in the country in defensive rating. Last season, when Arizona fell in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State, that jumped to 59th. But this season, so far? Arizona is 16th. That's ahead of their offensive rank, which is 20th overall, reflecting their usual spot among the most efficient teams in college basketball.
Miller is convinced this balance should serve Arizona particularly well when March rolls around. He's been successful in the land Lute Olson once ruled, but the Wildcats still haven't been back to a Final Four since the Gilbert Arenas/Richard Jefferson team fell to Duke in the 2000-01 title game.
"Defense is a big, big part," Miller said regarding March success. "You know, we're five games in. If we're talking like this 25 games in, I think we'll have a lot of confidence. We have to be one of the elite defensive teams in the country, based on what we're trying to accomplish, and based on the makeup of our team. That's the strength. The length, the defensive rebounding."
And as Miller also noted, missed shots on one end lead to transition, and open threes, at the other end. Gordon, along with the other Wildcats, understand what they are capable of already, come March.
"We see it, just like you see it," Gordon told me about the jump in Arizona's defending. "I can switch and guard big men. I am quick enough to guard point guards. We do a lot of switching. We know if everyone buys in, we have a chance to be something special."