Examining the Pod: Arizona Wildcats

It is my humble as well as braggadocios belief that Arizona is one of the four best teams in this tournament.

Of course this has sent me into something of an identity crisis. As you’ve loyally followed these pages, I have a clear and – once again – braggadocios stance on the power of KenPom and other metrics to explain a team’s chances to win a basketball game. As it were, I do not love Arizona by its advanced metrics. They do a little bit of everything well, nothing particularly great. They’ve also had one of the more unique roster situations of recent memory lending itself to a lack of performance continuity outside of one of the game’s most critical stats: WINNING. A wholistic view of the metrics, as aggregated by Five Thirty Eight tells us that the Wildcats have the eighth best odds to win the whole damn thing. Crisis averted?

I’m still just moderately satisfied. Saint Mary’s is a higher rated KenPom team with higher odds of reaching the Elite Eight than the West’s 3 seed, Florida State. The Gaels, in fact, have higher Final Four odds than UCLA and Oregon. We can get to Randy Bennett and the challenge the Gaels pose later. And no matter the case, no one said winning this thing was easy. Arizona, as an intact roster including Trier et. al. was KenPom’s 10th rated team. The 538 aggregate accounts for that and other preseason measures, a means to keep us all honest. Yet if the WCC (Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s) is providing Arizona’s greatest hurdles to making its first Final Four since 2001, then I’ll take those chances. Furthermore, Arizona was rewarded with just a 16-seed in the Name of the Year Bracket (s/o Chance Comanche). Does all this mean I’m an eye test guy?

First Round – #15 North Dakota

One time, Arizona lost to a 15-seed and that team had an NBA Hall of Famer on it. In glossing (but sincerely digging deeper than just that adjective) the Fighting Hawks’ roster (is that the mascot from the Mighty Ducks – oh no, that was the Night Hawks) I see no such future HOFers or NBA MVPs. They do, however, have a Geno, a Drick, a Jafar, and a Cortez. THEY HAVE A JAFARStrong, young millennial names. Amongst those names, Geno is the passing guy, Drick the rebounding guy, and the unmentioned, but no less solidly named, Quinton Hooker is the shots guy. Hooker led the team in scoring (19ppg) while shooting 42% from beyond the arc. In looking at what the Hawks do well, it’s hard to finger a single thing. As it pertains to trying to upset a #2 seed, the Hawks:

  1. Foul too often (40% defensive FT rate is 262nd nationally, Arizona has a 41% FT rate)
  2. Don’t rebound (277th offensively, 120th defensively)
  3. Take too many possessions (71 possessions per game plays right about into Arizona’s strengths)
  4. Don’t shoot enough threes (despite making 38% of them, just 30% of their offense comes from beyond that arc, 307th nationally and playing right into Arizona’s strength)
  5. Are the second best ND in the bracket (Hey Mike Brey!)

The Others – #7 Saint Mary’s

Despite my neuroses and significant focus on the Gaels above, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As fans, we are attracted to contrasting styles. Randy Bennett’s first round matchup with VCU is exactly that. First, as the header-font suggests, we’ll understand the Gaels. In doing such, I’ll request that Wildcat fans take a seat. The Gaels do the following things at ELITE (as measured but perhaps not proverbially “battle tested”) levels:

  • Slow pace (350th nationally, there are 351 teams)
  • Don’t foul (9th lowest defensive FT rate nationally)
  • Make threes (14th best 3FG% nationally)
  • Rebound (Best, Top, #1 defensive rebounding team in the country)
  • Don’t turn the ball over (Top-100 TO% isn’t quite elite but noteworthy)

I asked you to sit because these are the fundamentals of Bo Ryan‘s basketball wet dream. Bo. Ryan. (I recommend you don’t click those hyperlinks unless you’re a masochistic psychopath). Of course that’s also why the computers love them. The algorithms are heavily predicated on basketball’s four factors: effective FG%, offensive rebound rate, turnover rate, and free throw rate. Measures that test a team’s ability to score effectively (eFG% rewards threes and FTrate rewards easy buckets) and maintain possessions (TO rate is obvious, offensive rebounding rate is a measure of limiting/obtaining extra possessions). As these are fundamental to being good at basketball, the fact that Saint Mary’s does each of the four factors well cannot be ignored. It innately suggests they’re a really good basketball team. These metrics aren’t the end-all-be-all but they’re really damn accurate. And so too is Saint Mary’s from distance (three-point shooting joke!).

Considering their skill and math:

  • Their pace pronounces their efficiency as fewer possessions + more made threes = high efficiency (measured in eFG%). Meanwhile, their offense also features an NBA-caliber big man making 63% of his shots. He scored the 35th most post points in the nation (per Synergy).
  • Defensively it’s the same thing but the WCC sucks at shooting – 14th in conference 3FG%. This suggests that, while the Gaels did a great job of limiting the number of threes taken (just like a Bo Ryan team) their defensive efficiency is augmented by missed threes perhaps not defended threes. Conversely, they allowed the third highest percentage of offense to come within the arc (60% of points). As you’ll soon recognize, all roads lead to Jock Landale and that’s exactly what the Gael defense does: no threes, all mid-range, and we’re not going to foul you. Mathematically, and against inferior opponents, this totes works.
  • In regards to rebounding, Landale, is really damn good. Chalk that up as a win for the rebounding factor (he rated top-20 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates).

And look, I don’t mean to pick Saint Mary’s apart with negative intonations and a complete debunking of advanced analytics. The metrics are far greater than me, than any one man. It’s my hope that you’ve gained an objective understanding of Saint Mary’s basketball amidst my subjective inentions.

The Others – #10 VCU

If you read between the lines, as an Arizona fan, I’m clearly concerned with Saint Mary’s. They’re going to force Arizona to defend for long stretches and have the giant slaying skill of three point shooting with the uniqueness of an elite big.

But what if the Gaels can’t get past VCU? As noted many words ago, this first round matchup will feature beautifully contrasting styles. The Rams aren’t necessarily Shaka Smart’s Havoc anymore – they don’t force turnovers like that. But their defense remains their signature, transition a component of their offense. As it relates to playing Saint Mary’s, it’s relevant that VCU doesn’t shoot (or make) a lot of three pointers. They make just 33% of their threes (240th nationally) while just 30% of their total offense comes from back there. They get to the rim, taking 44% of their shots near the tin. From a pace perspective (remember, both Saint Mary’s and Arizona play much slower), the Rams are a touch swifter than average, also getting about 14% of their offense in transition. Fun to note, as the Gaels force ridiculously long defensive possessions, VCU has a very poor late eFG%, just 36% (“late” is defined as 5-seconds or less on the shot clock). By contrast, Arizona has a late eFG% of 53%.


Arizona advances. As is obvious by my Saint Mary’s rambling, however, one of two scenarios must play out: 1) VCU beats Saint Mary’s, or 2) Saint Mary’s upsets Arizona. There’s no two ways about it, right? Jock Landale is good.

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