Lockdown perimeter defense, along with much improved outside shooting, have transformed the Wildcats under Miller's brother, Sean, now in his second year in Tucson. A 16--15 team last year that shot just 35.8% from the arc while allowing teams to shoot 31.4%, the Wildcats this year made 39.9% entering the NCAA tournament and held teams to 28.8%, best in the Pac-10. Their main objective on defense is to protect the lane from penetration and not get overextended. "If you start running at the ball, you give teams great opportunities for kickouts," says Archie Miller.
Arizona has seven guys who have made 25 or more threes this year; four of them shoot better than 40%, including 6'8" sophomore forward and likely lottery pick Derrick Williams, who made just 4 of 16 attempts last year. After a summer spent launching 400 to 500 shots a day six days a week at a gym in Los Angeles, Williams has improved dramatically. This year he has hit on 36 of 62 attempts (58.1%) and is on pace to surpass Steve Kerr's school accuracy mark of 57.3%, set back at the dawn of the long-ball era, 1987--88.
It is perhaps a reflection of the clutch nature of Williams—who saved Arizona's season twice this past weekend, with a heroic block of a last-second shot by Memphis last Friday and with a late and-one against Texas in a 70--69 win on Sunday—that his game accuracy far surpasses his practice accuracy. "Whatever he shoots in games, it's about half that in practice," says teammate Kevin Parrom.
Unlike Arizona, San Diego State isn't a great three-point shooting team—the Aztecs' 6 of 11 three-pointers against Temple last Saturday was a rare display of marksmanship—but under the tutelage of assistant Justin Hutson, the Aztecs have become almost as stingy on the defensive side. Their 30.9% three-point defense ranked 24th in the nation during the regular season. "We were a good defensive team last year, but we had three or four young guys who didn't realize how good people can shoot it at this level," says Hutson. This year, he adds, "Everyone bought into giving that effort on defense."
Of course, you can commit to defending the perimeter all you want and still have no answer for BYU's Jimmer Fredette. Jimmer, who should become the first player since 1994 to win both the scoring title (28.8 points per game) and the national player of the year award, had 34 points, including seven three-pointers, in an 89--67 blowout of Gonzaga last Saturday that sent the Cougars to their first Sweet 16 since 1981. "Believe it or not, I thought we defended him O.K.," said Bulldogs coach Mark Few, noting that Fredette's teammates combined for an additional seven threes. "If you're not dialed into what you're doing, he can make you pay in a hurry. He had a couple of dribble-up transition threes. That's a hard guard."
This week in the Southeast Regional in New Orleans, Fredette and BYU will face Florida, a team that won its second straight national title four years ago while deploying the nation's ninth-best three-point attack (40.9%) and second-best perimeter defense (28.5%). Alas, this Florida squad is off the pace on both counts: These Gators shoot 35.7% (103rd) and limit foes to 31.5% (33rd). Neither is Duke, last year's champion, as ferociously protective of the perimeter as usual. After holding opponents to 28.3% from the arc last year, the Blue Devils have slacked off to 31.6%.
Will any of those numbers matter this weekend? They are, after all, just averages. As Demonte Harper, who missed all five of his threes before hitting the game-winner against Louisville, can tell you, when it comes to glory—or, for that matter, infamy—in the NCAA tournament, timing is everything. "Threes are a dangerous weapon," said Morehead State guard Ty Proffitt the day after the Eagles' win, "but you can shoot 60 percent one day and beat anybody and come out and shoot 10 percent and get beaten by anyone." He is a prophet, indeed. The next day he and his teammates struggled from the arc (14.3%) and everywhere else and were soundly beaten 65--48 by Richmond. They were gone, but thanks to the three, they were not forgotten.