NCAA March Madness
Maui champ Arizona avoids the 'rocky start' Sean Miller feared
"Realistically, we're not that good of team right now," Miller said. "We're nowhere near where we [were] a year ago at this time. I can see us getting off to a rocky start in the month of November."
Arizona indeed hasn't bolted from the starting blocks as fast as fellow top-five teams Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin have this season, but the Wildcats are starting to show signs that they may yet close the gap. They showcased stifling defense, an emerging freshman star and a knack for getting to the free throw line Wednesday night in the Maui Invitational title game, continuing their recent domination of San Diego State with a tense 61-59 victory over the 15th-ranked Aztecs.
That Arizona managed to thwart San Diego State's latest upset bid is impressive because the Aztecs had plenty of motivation. San Diego State had hoped to avenge three previous narrow losses to the Wildcats, one in the Sweet 16 last March in Anaheim, one in the regular season in San Diego last November and one in the finals of the Diamondhead Classic in Dec. 2012.
It's unlikely Arizona would beaten San Diego State a fourth time in a row if it didn't produce its best defensive stretch of the season during the final 10 minutes of Wednesday night's game. The previously unbeaten Aztecs took a 48-47 lead on an Angelo Chol basket midway through the second half but eventually ran out of ways to generate offense against the Wildcats, missing nine of their next 10 shots and scoring only three points in nine minutes.
Such a stifling stretch is a good sign for an Arizona team that surrendered an unusually high shooting percentage in a narrow victory over Kansas State in the Maui semifinals the night before. The Wildcats miss Nick Johnson's vocal leadership and Aaron Gordon's knack for defending multiple positions yet they still have the personnel to overwhelm opposing offenses in time, from an elite on-ball defender at point guard, to overwhelming size, strength and ball-hawking instincts at wing, to several capable interior defenders and rim protectors in the paint.
Where there are greater questions about Arizona is on offense because sometimes the Wildcats simply don't score as easily as other top teams. Arizona shot just 36.5 percent from the field against the formidable San Diego State defense and only managed 61 points because its guards turned turnovers into fast-break chances and got to the foul line 24 times.
In reality, the ability to turn defense into offense and to generate free throws may turn out to be the Wildcats' best offensive weapons this season. The T.J. McConnell 3-pointer that gave Arizona the lead for good with 7:39 to go was set up by a J.J. O'Brien Turnover. Rondae-Hollis Jefferson then gave Arizona some breathing room when he blocked a Dwayne Polee 3-pointer and raced out for a breakaway dunk that extended the lead to four.
That Arizona shot so many free throws was also no surprise considering the Wildcats average nearly 30 per game. While the downside of playing Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson together at wing is that neither can shoot consistently enough from the perimeter to space the floor, the upside is that both are big, strong wings who excel attacking the rim and getting to the foul line.
One of the biggest questions facing Arizona entering the season was who would fill Nick Johnson's role as the team's offensive catalyst and go-to scorer down the stretch in close games. There wasn't an obvious choice among the returning players since Hollis-Jefferson still lacks the ball handling skills and jump shot to make that transition and Brandon Ashley is ill-suited for the role as a pick-and-pop forward.
Maybe the most encouraging aspect of Wednesday night's victory was that highly touted freshman wing Stanley Johnston for the first time showed signs that he may yet emerge as Arizona's top scoring threat. Johnson delivered a season-high 18 points and 9 rebounds against the fearsome San Diego State defense, and while his shooting percentage was low, he was also fearless attacking the rim and getting to the foul line throughout the second half.
In many ways, Johnson symbolizes where Arizona is right now as a team flashes of greatness but still a work in progress.
Arizona still needs to become more consistent on defense and to develop an identity late in close games on offense. Nonetheless, the team Miller insisted was "nowhere near" where it needed to be three weeks ago is steadily getting closer.
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#11 seed GONZAGA BULLDOGS (19-14) vs. #6 seed ST. JOHN’S RED STORM (21-11)
NCAA Tournament – Second Round
Tip-off: Thursday, 9:45 p.m. ET – Denver, CO
Line: St. John’s -1, Total: 135
Gonzaga versus St. John’s is a matchup of teams with two distinctly different NCAA histories, recently speaking.
The Bulldogs have been to each and every NCAA party since 1999, dancing its way from tournament Cinderella in the late 90’s to perennial attendees today. If the ’Zags have been the annual party people, St. John’s on the other hand has been a tournament home body. The Johnnies, longtime strangers to all this madness nonsense, will be making their first tournament appearance on Thursday night since 2002, when they lost in the first round to Wisconsin.
The closest thing that these two teams may have in common is a little bit of history. In 2000 Gonzaga and St. John’s met in the second round of the West Regional. Gonzaga (#10 seed) defeated the Big East champion Red Storm (#2 seed) that year, 82-76. 2000 was also the last year that the Red Storm won a tournament game. Now Steve Lavin has the program back to respectability, and will be trying to add onto an already impressive ‘10-11 resume that saw the school go from 17 wins to 21 (and counting?) and from 6-12 in league play last season, to 12-6 this year.
You don’t make the tournament 13 straight times without getting hot at the right time of year, so it shouldn’t’ be surprising to see Gonzaga entering the tournament winners of nine straight and 11 of its last 12. Those numbers become even more impressive when you consider where Gonzaga was on December 11, when the ‘Zags were sitting at 4-5 following an 83-79 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend.
Shortly thereafter, quality out-of-conference wins over Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State got things back on track for Mark Few’s team, and from there it was a race to wrest control of the West Coast Conference back away from last year’s champ, Saint Mary’s. That battle was waged throughout the season, with the two teams splitting games, winning on each other’s home court. It came down to the conference title game, and the ‘Zags were up to the task, defeating the Gaels 75-63. Gonzaga is led by big 6-foot-5 senior guard Steven Gray (13.8 PPG, 3.8 APG, 1.7 SPG), who leads the team in scoring, assists, steals, collisions and floor burns.
Gray gets a big assist from 7-footer junior Robert Sacre (12.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG) the team’s leading rebounder, and shot blocker. Sacre (pronounced Sock-cray) could pose a particular headache on the interior for the Red Storm’s big men, whose tallest players seeing regular playing time are only 6-foot-8. Sophomore Elias Harris (12.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG) is the third player scoring in double figures for the Bulldogs. Gonzaga’s guard play down the stretch was also impressive. Marquise Carter (5.9 PPG) averaged 14.5 PPG, made 13-of-15 FT, and committed just three total turnovers in the semifinal and championship games of the conference tournament. David Stockton provided key minutes off the bench subbing for Carter and Gray.
The Red Storm were sitting at 13-9, and 5-5 in conference play following a seven-point February 5 loss in Los Angeles to UCLA. They closed the regular season with a flurry, winning seven of their final eight games, including home victories over ranked teams Connecticut and Pittsburgh, and a road win over ranked Villanova. The Johnnies defeated five ranked teams in Madison Square Garden during the regular season, with the big head-turner being their 93-78 blowout of Duke on Jan. 30.
First team All-Big East player Dwight Hardy (18.0 PPG) led the team in scoring, seemingly saving his best for the biggest games. He scored 34 against ‘Nova, 33 versus UConn and 26 against Duke. Fellow senior Justin Brownlee (12.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG) is second on the team in scoring and rebounding. The concern for St. John’s entering this game isn’t who will take the court, but who will not.
Leading rebounder, and number two assist man, senior D.J. Kennedy (10.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.0 APG), tore his right ACL in the Big East Tournament loss last Thursday to Syracuse, ending his season and career at the school in heartbreaking fashion. Kennedy also led the team in steals with 56. Kennedy’s versatility as a passer, scorer, and defender will be sorely missed, especially on the interior, as Lavin’s crew will have to contain an energetic 7-footer without its top player on the glass. With Gonzaga averaging 37.4 rebounds per game to the Red Storm’s 32.8, the Johnnies have no choice but to outwork the ‘Zags in the paint. If they can’t, the Bulldogs could bulldoze the Red Storm en route to the second round.
Gonzaga is 12-8 ATS after an SU win, while St. John’s is 4-6 ATS after an SU loss. The Red Storm are also 6-10 ATS in non-home games, while Gonzaga is 8-6 ATS outside of their home gym.
GONZAGA is 11-3 ATS (78.6%, +7.7 Units) when playing against a good team (Win Pct. 60% to 80%) over the last 2 seasons. The average score was GONZAGA 73.3, OPPONENT 66.1 - (Rating = 1*).
GONZAGA is 17-6 ATS (73.9%, +10.4 Units) in road games after 2 straight games making 78% of their free throws or better since 1997. The average score was GONZAGA 80.6, OPPONENT 74.1 - (Rating = 1*).
This four-star trend advises a play on the Under.
GONZAGA is 11-1 UNDER (91.7%, +9.9 Units) versus good shooting teams - making >=45% of their shots this season. The average score was GONZAGA 69.5, OPPONENT 67.0 - (Rating = 4*).