When Arizona Wildcats guard Nick Johnson was asked about getting another chance at Colorado tonight after a one-point loss to the Buffaloes last month, he didn't mention the Wildcats' poor three-point shooting or failed last possession in that game.
He talked about defense.
Colorado guard "Carlon Brown, he really had his way with our defense, and so did their freshman, (Spencer) Dinwiddie," Johnson said. "So I know me and (Kyle) Fogg personally want to see them again. That's definitely big."
Johnson's remarks were fitting for a new Pac-12 matchup that pits the conference's two best defensive teams. During Pac-12 games, the Wildcats are No. 1 in scoring defense (59.6 points) and field-goal-percentage defense (38.5 percent), and Colorado is right behind with 61.6 average points and 39.0 percent shooting allowed by opponents.
Not only are the two teams close statistically, but they are also remarkably alike in physical size and philosophy.
Like Arizona, the Buffaloes aren't huge inside, but they are mobile and tough and have the country's fifth top rebounder in Andre Roberson. Both teams have 6-foot-3-inch point guards, and Dinwiddie and Brown are slightly taller than UA wings Johnson and Fogg.
Inside, Colorado has 6-9 Austin Dufault and the 6-7 Roberson. Arizona counters with 6-7 Jesse Perry and 6-6 Solomon Hill, plus the improving 6-9 Angelo Chol off the bench.
The Wildcats held Roberson scoreless on Jan. 21 in Boulder.
"Their bigs are really mobile," said UA associate head coach James Whitford, who scouted the Buffaloes.
They are also pretty nimble, the way Colorado coach Tad Boyle explained it.
"We can switch a little bit more, and we want to front the post as much as we can to limit their team's post touches," Boyle said.
Unlike Washington, neither Arizona nor Colorado gamble much to deny passes and go for steals, instead preferring to stay back to play solid position defense.
"They may extend a little more than us, but we have very similar philosophies," Miller said. "And we have similar sized personnel doing it, and that's one of the reasons our defensive numbers are so similar."
The Wildcats favor a "pack-line" approach that mandates ball pressure on any opposing ball-handler outside the three-point arc but help defense inside the arc.
Colorado also plays sound help defense, though its big men are slightly more aggressive in jumping off ball screens because of their mobility.
Unlike most Pac-12 teams, the Wildcats or Buffaloes rarely mess around with zone defenses no matter who they are up against.
For Miller, creating a man-to-man identity has been part of his mission since arriving at Arizona. It's also about effective time management.
"You can't be the master of everything," Miller said. "If you just look at what you would consider the best defensive programs in the country, one of the similarities that I'm sure most of them have is they're good at one thing. You only get so much practice time."
Miller said Fogg, one of the Pac-12's best defenders this season, is a prime example of what happens when a player combines hard work with a consistent philosophy.
Miller said the UA has slight variances within its man to man, sometimes trapping the post and adjusting the level of help defense but that "we generally stick with the same defense so that individual players can grow and develop."
Colorado, Boyle says, does much the same thing.
"When you look at how they guard screens, you know what they're going to do, but they do it consistently and they do it well," Boyle said. "We feel we do the same thing. We know how we want to guard. We don't want to break down and give the opponent easy baskets."
Arizona and Colorado are not only 1-2 in the Pac-12 in defensive scoring and field-goal percentage allowed, but the Wildcats are far ahead in the conference lead in three-point shooting allowed with just 25.3 percent.
In all games, Arizona holds opponents to an overall three-point percentage of 26.7 that is fourth nationally.
Colorado allows conference opponents to shoot just 28.7 percent on three-pointers and leads commandingly in defensive rebounds with an average of 27.5 per game.
But the most important measure of the team's defensive efforts is, of course, winning.
And there, Colorado is achieving well beyond expectations, having been picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 but sitting now in a tie for second place. Arizona, meanwhile, has suffered only two big losses all season - against Mississippi State in New York and against Gonzaga in Seattle.
"There's some teams you prepare for and say, 'OK, lets run our stuff, run our stuff and eventually a team may break down," Boyle said. "But against a great defensive team like Arizona, they may not break down. So you're going to have to make a play, make a shot and have good offense beat good defense. That can happen in possessions but over the course of a 40-minute game, usually good defense prevails over good offense."
Without a lot of offensive firepower this season, Miller hopes the trend can continue.
"I'm very proud of it, but I have my fingers crossed," Miller said. "Having coached some good defensive teams, (I know) it can leave you in a minute. The danger for us is if our defense left us it would be a disaster because it's kept us in virtually every game we've played. And there are some wins that we've had where it's been 80 percent to do with how we defended and very little to do with our offense."
On StarNet: See what Sean Miller has to say about Jordan Mayes' injury at azstarnet.com/video, and see an interactive Insider presentation on the Colorado game at azstarnet.com/multimedia
• What: Colorado at Arizona
• When: 7 p.m.
• TV: ESPN
• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)