Wildcats coach Sean Miller is a daily visitor to the national defensive efficiency rankings on kenpom.com. "It keeps me sane," he says. "Those are the numbers that I believe in." Miller knows—and this is backed up by a decade's worth of data—that you can't contend for a national title without being near the top of those rankings. He frequently lets his team know how its help-oriented, man-to-man D stacks up; last season Arizona ascended to No. 1 on kenpom in January, then earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. These Wildcats are aiming to set themselves apart by having another top-ranked D that's powered by senior T.J. McConnell, their pest of a point guard; sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6'7" lockdown wing; and the length of juniors Brandon Ashley (6'9") and Kaleb Tarczewski (7 feet).
The return of Ashley—who tore a ligament in his right foot last February after establishing himself as a scoring threat in the post, in midrange isolation and on pick-and-pops—should also ensure that the offense doesn't stagnate. "No one," says the pass-first McConnell, "is happier to have Brandon back than me." The Wildcats were one possession away from the 2014 Final Four; with a few better bounces, a few more buckets and the same stout defense, the 2015 championship is within reach.
With 2014--15 Projected Stats
TELLING NUMBER 40.2
Percentage of shots made by Wildcats' opponents inside the arc last season, the best defensive two-point field goal mark for any major conference team (and second best in the country, after UC Irvine's 39.2).
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
McConnell's court vision is exceptional.