Arizona beat San Diego State, 69-60, on Thursday Night to kick off CBS Sports Network's college basketball season. I picked the Wildcats to win the national title -- am I sticking by that pick? We'll get to that answer in a minute.
For starters, freshman phenom Aaron Gordon was as good or better than advertised. Don't let the stats (16 points, 8 rebounds) fool you in terms of dominating a game, he was limited by a couple of ridiculous foul calls. Gordon played within himself as a 3 (small forward), 4 (power forward) and 5 (center) by taking open threes, driving bigger players off the dribble and finishing in transition as well.
My biggest reservation about Arizona going forward is point guard T.J. McConnell, the transfer from Duquesne, who is a bit of an albatross. Albatross is a big word, and may be a bit too negative, so let me give you context. Arizona has several secondary ball handlers who can execute the offense, but they can not really be at their best unless McConnell is in the game running the show. On the other hand, McConnell showed some athletic and skill limitations that are a little troubling at the highest level of college basketball. He is not as athletic as Aaron Craft, he looks more like a Duquesne-level player than an Arizona-level player so far. McConnell has very good vision, but he must shoot the reversal jump shot to open up his driving/passing lanes as he isn't some freak athlete who can beat you even when you give him space. McConnell will make others better to a point, but unless teams fear his scoring, that can be limited by scouting. Simply put, the Cats cannot win without him, but can they win big with him? I believe he will play more confidently as a shooter and will attack the lane more, but SDSU seemed to shut off most of his penetration.
To beat Arizona, opponents can either zone the Wildcats or pack it in defensively while challenging Gordon and bench sniper Gabe York's open jumpers. Rebounding against UA is a major concern as they can pound you on the glass with Gordon, center Kaleb Tarczewski and forward Brandon Ashley while their guards have good defensive balance. Arizona runs primarily motion (passing game) with Tarczewski setting back screens to open up the lane, but if you "gap" everything those cuts aren't really effective.
In order to score on the Wildcats, simply attacking on ball screens will work if you have more shooters and better movement/spacing than San Diego State displayed. Ashley and Gordon are very athletic, but I think the small lineup of a Duke (UA's probable opponent in the Preseason NIT title game Nov. 29) will be very challenging as neither player is particularly comfortable defending wing players. Arizona is solid across the board playing man-to-man, but they do not zone, and do not really vary their style as Miller uses lineup changes (playing small against quicker teams) instead of playing a zone with a big lineup. I also think McConnell may over-pressure in one-on-one containment and he could be exposed if you isolate him, though Zona's big men have his back as shot-blockers.
Arizona was my pick to win the national title and I still feel OK about it based as much on the rest of the field as on the Wildcats as a team. They have flaws, like not having a "pro" at the point, not enough shooting and I wonder if Gordon/Ashley will play within themselves in a huge game. On the other hand, McConnell runs his team and does not turn it over, and while I would like to see him shoot more, the team is mostly unselfish in a good way. Arizona also has just about the perfect amount of depth since Grant Jerrett left. They have just enough guys to overcome some foul trouble, but not so many that they are hunting shots due to limited minutes. I would be very surprised if this is not a Sweet 16 team, and if Tarczewski finishes better and McConnell makes some shots, Arizona has every right to think it is in the mix of the best teams in the country.
San Diego State, meanwhile showed some limitations against Arizona that were very apparent. The Aztecs are very aggressive defensively, they crash the glass, attack the rim and have several players who are excellent finishers around the rim, but Arizona does most everything SDSU does well, only the Wildcats are bigger and better shooters as well. I think the Aztecs will get better as Josh Davis, an undersized 6-7 center who previously spent time with both NC State and Tulane, plays against similar-size players or he gets more confidence in a 15-foot jump shot. Winston Sheppard is still an impressive athlete who teases you with ball handling and length, but he has to take better and make more shots. JJ O'Brien is solid as a point forward who is hard to cover 17 feet and in. SDSU worked through almost its entire roster trying to find the right lineup, but just could not hit enough shots to loosen up a foul prone Arizona defense.
SDSU will be limited by its shooting and not having a creator (Jamaal Franklin, now in the NBA, led them in assists as well as points, rebounds and steals last year) with scoring point Xavier Thames running the team. That said, the Aztecs defend, compete and will rebound better against smaller teams. They just weren't a good match for Arizona.