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So far, Arizona basketball’s free throw differential sheds light on success

Arizona freshman guard Kobi Simmons reaches against a Cal State Bakersfield player in the Wildcats' 78-66 win on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (Associated Press)

Through two games against vastly different teams, the Arizona Wildcats have won close calls with the same formula. They’ve done so while navigating an identity crisis spurred on by the absence of Allonzo Trier and, as of Tuesday’s win against Cal State Bakersfield, that of Kadeem Allen as well.

Arizona held off a blue-collar Roadrunner team at McKale Center 78-66 on Tuesday with another night of winning the foul stripe.

It’s simple in philosophy but more complex in strategy. It’s even harder to execute.

Opponents have taken only 9.7 shot attempts per every free throw they make. Sean Miller’s depth-deprived Wildcats, on the other hand, have taken 2.1 shots per every free throw make. The radical difference is aggression-based in Arizona’s favor on offense but even more impressive when considering its defense.

It means the shorthanded Arizona team is not getting in extreme foul trouble, though the issue did creep up for a seven-man rotation that on Tuesday went to eight when walk-on Paulo Cruz played a stint in the first half.

The free throw differential certainly means Arizona has been keen on avoiding fouls on opponent shot attempts. On Friday, Michigan State took just nine free throws while Cal State Bakersfield took 11 on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats have gone 20-for-27 at the foul stripe against the Spartans and 27-of-35 against the Roadrunners.

It makes it all the more promising a patchwork roster that has relied on several youngsters is managing fouls well while remaining aggressive on defense by holding the first two opponents to an identical 43.1 percent from the floor; each team went 25-of-58 from the field.

The positives extend to the offensive end as well, where freshmen Kobi Simmons and Lauri Markkanen have led the march to the foul stripe in both games.

“We talked about it in our locker room. We don’t have freshmen on this year’s team,” Miller said in his postgame radio interview on Tuesday. “You’re not allowed to be a freshman. What tonight gave us was a lot of things we’ll see in the future, and I think we’ll be better prepared for the future.”

Markkanen was the blueprint of efficiency in his second regular season game. The 7-foot Finnish forward went 8-for-11 from the floor, with just one three. He shot 9-for-9 at the free throw line to close with 26 points and eight rebounds.

After his 18-point performance against MSU, Simmons scored eight at the foul line for the second consecutive game to finish with 13 on Tuesday.

The free throw success comes as teams will assuredly test the Wildcats’ offensive identity.

Like Michigan State, Cal State Bakersfield begged Arizona to take threes early on, and freshman Rawle Alkins responded well by splashing three treys before 10 minutes had passed. The floor opened up for drives quite a bit afterward, and the Wildcats ended up only taking 14 threes on the night while making seven.

Can the formula of keeping opponents off the line and continuing to seek out contact continue?

It’s hard to say.

What is clear is that Arizona’s packline defense has flashes, if not stretches, of being in the right place at the right time. High field goal shooting and high rates of trips to the foul line by opponents would generally signal more glaring issues there, but that’s not been the case.

As for Arizona’s offense, there’s been enough spacing for drives and enough maturity by its players to make their money at the foul line.

The Wildcats, with as much talent as they’re missing and as young and unfamiliar with one another they might be, don’t look all that lost.

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