Recent games expose No. 6 Arizona Basketball's Achilles heel heading into March Madness

Arizona v Arizona State
Arizona v Arizona State / Chris Coduto/GettyImages

No. 6 Arizona Basketball is one of the 10 best teams in the country, and that's undeniable. Caleb Love and Oumar Ballo are both jockeying for — and should be the overwhelming favorites to win — Pac-12 men's basketball player of the year. Arizona is second in Division I in both scoring with 89.9 points per game and rebounds with 43.7 per game. Arizona has held the fourth No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology for a few weeks now, and despite a 48-hour scare, has maintained the top spot in the Pac-12 for nearly all of the meaningful conference play.

However, just because Arizona is one of the best teams doesn't mean they're one of the hottest teams. A strong seven-game win streak was swiftly snapped when No. 21 Washington State came to town and stunned the 'Cats with a 77-74 loss in McKale Center. Even in the second game against Arizona State, what ended as an 18-point win got way too close way too many times. Both of these shaky games show a serious weak spot for Arizona: perimeter defense.

Perimeter defense

Arizona has started to straighten this out, but opposing teams are continuing to try their luck from the 3-point line. The 'Cats have surrendered 10-plus 3-pointers eight times this season, and four of those games saw the opposing team nail 12 or more from range. Even Washington State, who only shot 6-18 from distance, nailed a 3-ball as time ran down to seal the win and the sweep.

Stanford is the biggest benefactor here; they abused Arizona from the 3-point line and went 30-58 (51.7%) over the two matchups. In the first game, the Cardinal sank a program-record 16 3-pointers on 25 shots en route to a stunning 100-88 win over the 'Cats. They were still hot in the second game, going 14-33 from distance.

However, the most egregious example of bad perimeter defense came when Arizona took to the road to play a reeling Oregon State team holding down the last spot in the Pac-12 standings. What should have been an easy win ended on a 3-point buzzer-beater from Jordan Pope to seal the 83-80 loss. Oregon State shot 12-20 (60%) from distance, while Arizona went a pitiful 3-14 (21.4%).

Other contributing factors

Poor 3-point defense alone won't necessarily lose Arizona games, so long as they can keep pace offensively — and most of the time, they can. However, an aggressive defensive game plan from opponents exacerbates the issues created by the perimeter defense.

One of Arizona's bread-and-butter plays is to lob it up near the rim for Ballo to slam it home. It's an exciting play that never fails to get McKale Center in a frenzy and has sparked a number of scoring runs.

However, Washington State kept the key extremely crowded and forced Ballo to try and slam it over multiple airborne bodies. There were quite a few times where Ballo got his hands on the lob but simply wasn't able to find the cup through the sea of Cougars. Washington State also employed the full-court press early and stayed in man defense for most of the game, which gave Arizona fits.

Arizona State took a page from the Cougars' book and also employed the full-court press by the time the second half came around to stop Arizona's first-half roll. The Sun Devils — a team already known for their prowess at forcing turnovers — were up in the Wildcats' grills for the entire second half and pulled within 5 points. They were strong in transition and coming off of Arizona inbounds, stealing a handful of balls and making a few statement plays.

Arizona hasn't figured out how to reliably make teams pay for being aggressive on defense, and that doesn't bode well for March. Michigan State and Richmond, currently the projected No. 9 and No. 12 seed in the West region with Arizona, have very stout defenses and hold opposing teams to an average of 66 points or less. The 'Cats will need to keep getting high-level performances from Kylan Boswell and stay aggressive on offense if they want to overcome these cracks in their armor and be true contenders in the later rounds of both the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments.

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