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April 9, 2013

Championship contenders give Wildcats blueprint for Monday run

March Madness gave way to April, the last note of "One Shining Moment" played, and another college basketball season is history. Anticipation for the 2013-14 season begins in earnest, and initially predictions are promising for Arizona.

CBS Sports projects the Wildcats No. 4 in its "way-too-early" poll. NBC Sports ranks UA second in its version of the seven-months-out snapshot. Expectations are high after last week's revelation that five-star forward Aaron Gordon is joining the roster, and a phrase emblazoned on practice T-shirts during the Lute Olson era comes to mind: "Play For Monday."

Monday, of course, refers to the day of the week every NCAA men's basketball championship game is played. All any of the 347 Division I programs can ask for is one game to earn the sport's most coveted prize.

Michigan fell short in its bid to win the national championship, but the Wolverines were just a few plays from their first title in 24 years. UA readies for its 2013-14 campaign with a similar make-up to this UM team.

Last week, I discussed developing the right chemistry between returning talent and celebrated newcomers. Head coach Sean Miller's greatest asset next season is also his biggest challenge, as he must strike the right balance of playing time and on-court combinations among a deep roster.

UM head coach John Beilein found that perfect balance. The Wolverines incorporated talented freshmen Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III into a lineup returning Tim Hardaway Jr., Jordan Morgan and Trey Burke.

Burke won consensus National Player of the Year honors, both creating his own scoring opportunities and assisting teammates. He was the catalyst for a balanced attack that featured four players averaging at least 11 points per game.

The Wolverines deviated from the stereotype Big Ten Conference style, playing an uptempo brand of basketball that produced 1.13 points per possession. Only Indiana and Gonzaga were more efficient.

Miller came to Tucson with a defensive-minded reputation, but has maintained the offensively open style UA was known for under Olson. Even with the Wildcats' documented problems in 2012-13 - long cold spells, the lack of a distributing point guard, reliance on the 3-pointer - UA ranked No. 26 nationally with 1.071 points per possession. But that extra little stretch for improvement might also translate into an extended NCAA tournament stay.

Asking new Wildcat point guard T.J. McConnell to be Burke is unrealistic, if not outright insane. But a free-flow created from the point is central to an effective offense. If the Duquesne transfer can replicate his 2011-12 output of 11.4 points and 5.5 assists per game, however, Miller can roll with a similar look to this season's runner-up.

With a diversified lineup and efficient style, UM's run to Monday should come as no surprise. And if UA can follow the blueprint, a Monday night date in North Texas next spring is not out of the question.

A reserve like Luke Hancock erupting for 22 points is a peril a team cannot necessarily prepare for, and is part of the inherent risk when the season comes down to a single game. Louisville getting such production off its bench may have been a surprise, but the way in which the Cardinals earned the opportunity was a tried-and-true formula of winning basketball.

So proven is the UL method, it's among the most invoked coaching clichés in the lexicon: defense wins championships.

Where UM scored with some of the highest efficiency in college basketball, UL stopped opponents at a similar pace. The Cardinals allowed just 0.847 points per possession, third best in the nation.

Miller was adamant about team defense this past season. When UA lost, he pointed to the Wildcats' failure to generate stops with regularity and consistent effort.

Indeed, UA ranked a pedestrian No. 49 in defensive efficiency. UM was considerable lower - No. 97 - which factored into the title game's outcome. Solving its defensive issues could mean the difference between playing on Monday and winning on Monday.

Kyle KensingKyle Kensing
GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer

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