If you want statistical proof that this Arizona team is the scrappy group of underdogs that you have come to love, look no further than its offensive rebounding percentage.
The Wildcats are grabbing 37.9% of their misses during their 9-1 start, the 11th-best mark in the country. That is the highest percentage ever by a Sean Miller-coached Arizona team.
Yes, even better than the Elite Eight squads.
It’s not skewed by an easy non-conference schedule either, as Arizona has an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.3 in Pac-12 games, almost six percent better than the next school.
It’s a big reason the Wildcats have the No. 26 offense in the country even though they don’t rank in the top 70 in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage or free throw percentage.
They have generated 136 second shots while only surrendering 89.
A good example of how crucial those second chances are: The Wildcats beat Washington State despite only shooting 38% from the field. They outscored the Cougars 16-7 in second-chance points. Two timely putbacks by Bennedict Mathurin helped force double overtime.
“It’s made up at times for when we’ve turned the ball over too much, it’s made up for times when maybe we haven’t shot the ball well from the free throw line or even the field,” Miller said. “You know, you get a second shot, it lends itself to free throw attempts. Obviously if you go back up and score it, it’s usually an inside shot, a dunk, foul and and-one. So they’re a big part of the game and something that we want to take away from our opponent and be able to get those coveted second shots on our end.”
Why is Arizona so good at grabbing its own misses? Miller attributed a lot of it to Arizona’s personnel. The Wildcats’ rotation is the 11th tallest in the country, per KenPom.
Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis are both top 70 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. Jordan Brown and Ira Lee aren’t far behind. And we can’t forget about Dalen Terry and Mathurin, two 6-foot-7 freshmen who rebound well for wings.
But being dominant on the glass requires more than height and athleticism. It takes a certain edge. A “dog mentality,” as Lee calls it.
Other Arizona teams were lacking that. This one isn’t.
“We do drills,” said Lee, UA’s lone four-year senior. “Coach says, ‘do what we do’ and part of him saying that is we’re a tough-minded group. And we always want to bring that mentality that it’s gonna be a dogfight.”
That mentality is bred in practice where Arizona’s big men go at each other on a daily basis.
“I can’t think of the name of the drill right now, but we have one where we go 3-on-3 and you got to try and get the offensive rebound,” Lee explained. “Sometimes it turns into a little bit of a football fighting match, but it gets us ready for the game.”
Lee hurt by postseason ban, still not thinking about next season
As you would expect, Lee was hurt when he learned that Arizona was banned from the postseason. It’s yet another obstacle he’s had to face during his UA career.
“I went to the (NCAA) tournament freshman year, we lost first round to Buffalo. Second year was a rough year for us. My third year, corona. And now this situation,” he said. “So it was hard. But just like I told the guys, we might as well go out with a bang and still try to win every dang conference game. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
It would be understandable if Lee wanted to return next season so he could have another shot at the NCAA Tournament. However, he said he has not thought about taking advantage of eligibility relief yet.
That decision will come at the end of the season.
“I’ll sit down with my family and the coaching staff and see what’s best for me,” he said.
A possible starting lineup change? Don’t count it
Mathurin earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors for helping the Wildcats secure three wins last week, but it doesn’t appear it will be enough to get him a spot in the starting lineup.
“I think every player wants to start, but for right now I like the way our rotation is,” Miller said. “The guys that don’t start the game are really important towards our success. And Benn with his scoring punch really complements the guys that don’t start. If you think about how Terrell Brown plays, how Christian Koloko and Ira Lee, Benn gives us some scoring punch and firepower with that group and we like how that feels right now.”
Mathurin averaged 12.7 points per game last week and was Arizona’s leading scorer against Washington and Washington State, when he had 24 points and 11 rebounds in the double OT win.
He played 38 minutes in Pullman, easily the most of his career. And though he didn’t start, he did close the game out. And that’s what’s most important, right?
“The actual quality minutes are the most important thing,” Miller said. “I mean, we start the group that we start because we feel like it’s our best five combination of players but on this year’s team, one of our strengths has been, and I have my fingers crossed I hope it continues to be, our depth. Each year at the Red-Blue game in a non-COVID traditional year, I think you guys always point towards our depth. Is it good? Who will play what position? Who will start? Who will grow? And it just seems like every week past that Red-Blue experience, it seems to work itself out and you’re never quite as deep when you get the conference play as you were in October. Some of it is injuries, some of it is just level of play, confidence, young players kind of headed in either one direction or the other.
“But on this year’s team, it’s really remained intact. Our best performances have come with a variety of combinations of players. Our depth really shined through against Washington State. Keep in mind that was our third game of the week. You know, being up there in the Pacific Northwest, we were on day four of our trip. To get into a double overtime game against a good team, a team that has not lost and is playing with a lot of confidence at home like Washington State was, it’s easy to cave in at some point. But part of why we were able to keep playing and fight through is we had four guards out there at times. We had bad foul trouble with our front line, but we have four of those guys. So we never ran out of bodies to play. And those different combinations have gotten us through different segments of our season.”
Here are the full interviews with Sean Miller and Ira Lee