Mountain West Connection: Arizona and SDSU rank second and third, respectively, in team defensive efficiency. What makes the Wildcat defense so great and how does it compare and contrast with SDSU's?
AZ Desert Swarm: Like another No. 1 seed, Virginia, the Wildcats use a man-to-man Pack Line defense that uses early weakside help, versatility and length. Arizona has the size in the middle to allow the guards to put a lot of pressure on the ball, and it has the size in the middle to prevent shots at the rim. The Wildcats allow about 50 percent of opponent shots to come on 2-point jumpers, a sign 3-pointers and shots at the rim are limited.
The ability for power forward Aaron Gordon and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to switch ball screens lends to the versatility, something the Aztecs can do with their length. There are hardly any defensive breakdowns within the scheme, and I think that's where Arizona and SDSU are also so similar.
MWC: A lot of people are talking about two players who will have different roles in game two between these budding rivals: Brandon Ashley and Dwayne Polee II. How have the Wildcats changed, for better or for worse, without Ashley in the lineup?
ADS: Ashley certainly gave Arizona more depth and size on the frontline. Instead of a running out an NBA-sized starting lineup, the Wildcats now roll with Gordon at power forward behind center Kaleb Tarczewski. Gabe York joins Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell in a three guard starting lineup as a pure shooter.
Arizona lost Ashley's ability to score quickly in the post and high post without anyone's help (i.e. McConnell making a play to open up a look) and obviously it becomes a depth issue as well. But Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon have grown enough where rebounding and defense has hardly seen a drop-off since the injury.
MWC: How will Arizona's defense try to neutralize Polee, a player it hasn't seen yet?
ADS: Like it does anyone else, probably. Arizona's defense doesn't really scheme very much, and it'll probably lie on Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson to handle the assignment one-on-one. Their length should be enough to at least keep Polee in check. One wrinkle that Arizona has shown in the postseason is an affinity to send quick doubles toward big men to cause turnovers; not sure if they see Polee as a guy who won't be able to handle it, but certainly something to watch for.
MWC: Aaron Gordon is absolutely amazing, but it seems like the play of Arizona's guards has spearheaded this great season. Talk about the impact Johnson, McConnell and York have on the team.
ADS: Johnson and Gordon fit so well together because they're two-way players. Arizona got into transition against Gonzaga last time out because Johnson and Gordon have the ability to steal, block or rebound the ball and then push the break on their own, without McConnell if need be. Leadership-wise, Johnson and McConnell are both very good on-ball defenders, sound decision-makers in the halfcourt offense, and leaders. York has been key as a shooter on a team that doesn't have very many players who can space the floor.
MWC: Arizona has another stud freshman, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. How has he improved over the year?
ADS: He's a lot like Gordon in being a very good defender, rebounder and passer, but he's really harnessed what looked like an out-of-control game to become yet another defensive threat that can lead a break. Arizona's halfcourt offense is sometimes less than impressive, and his growth to join Johnson and Gordon as threats in transition will be key against SDSU and beyond if the Wildcats can win.
MWC: What's the Wildcats' biggest weakness? Biggest strength?
ADS: Halfcourt offense, shooting especially, can get the best of Sean Miller's team. The Aztecs would be smart to get themselves into another grind-it-out sort of game like the first meeting. Limiting turnovers will help that happen.
Arizona's biggest strength is its defense, but it will be even more of a problem for teams if the Wildcats can turn that into easy offense. They did that against Gonzaga with 21 forced turnovers leading to 31 points, but it's still a matter of putting a string of games like that together.
MWC: Last-second shot: who takes it?
ADS: Nick Johnson has been the guy, but I'm not sure the Wildcats want to be in that position. He's forced it in some games, but I don't see anyone other than he or McConnell taking it.
MWC: What's the talk around town about this "Best in the West" showdown?
ADS: I think people are conscious that San Diego State doesn't look like it'll roll over considering the recent history between the two teams, but at the same time, I think there's a strong expectation Arizona will win. The Wildcats are maybe coming off their best game where their two freshmen looked like the best players on the court, but the worry, again, is that consistency. Can Arizona's offense get into transition to make it a comfortable enough win?