FULLERTON, CA — Coming into the Wooden Legacy event in Southern California, the Arizona Wildcats had been arguably the most successful team in early season tournaments of the last three years.
Back in 2012, they went to the Diamond Head Classic and won. In 2013, it was a win in the Preseason NIT over Duke. Then in 2014, they went to Hawaii again and won the Maui Invitational. So yeah, typically these events have gone well.
However, Friday night was a different story, as the Wildcats struggled to get momentum throughout the game and fell to Providence 69-65. The story of the game was a trascendent performance from a Friar star, as Kris Dunn scored 19 points and dished out eight assists in 21 minutes while dealing with foul trouble for a majority of the contest following some suspect decisions. He scored 11 of the Friars final 13 points in the last four minutes, and overall was the dominant force in the game.
That performance ended Arizona’s bid for a fourth-straight early season title, and — along with the Wildcats overtime game with currently 0-7 Santa Clara — and continued the uneven play that we’ve seen from them early in the year. Throughout all of their games this season, coach Sean Miller has shuffled in different lineups, never looking totally comfortable with what he has on the floor.
“Part of why we are shuffling in and out is that it’s not an obvious answer,” Miller said about his team’s progress so far. “There are a lot more question marks than there are answers. When the answer comes, then I think you’ll see some of these guys solidifying themselves in a greater role. But it can’t be given. You have to earn it. It’s in practice, it’s in games. Hopefully we can keep moving in that direction.”
It’s a rather large departure from where the Wildcats have been the last few years under Miller. Last season, the rotation was largely set from Day One with freshman Stanley Johnson entering the starting lineup with Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and T.J. McConnell with a well-established bench group. In 2013-14, they had a pretty young group just like they do now, but the situations in the backcourt and frontcourt were much more settled with McConnell and Nick Johnson. Even in 2012-13, where the talent level was a bit lower than previous — like it seems to be this year — seniors Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill were around to help the new guys along and stem the tide until Johnson, Ashley and Grant Jerrett were ready to step up.
This season, while the Wildcats are integrating new pieces, they haven’t had that luxury of bringing players along slowly. They lost their four leading scorers from last season, forcing players into new roles. There are seven newcomers who could play a role on this team. Injuries have not allowed them to build up momentum in the way that they line up on a night-to-night basis, as three of their experienced players have missed a game here or there, with Ryan Anderson, Elliott Pitts missing previous time in addition to Kaleb Tarczewski missing the game Friday.
Not only that, but there isn’t really an alpha on this team quite yet among the older players who can create his own shot. Anderson had 27 points and 12 rebounds against Providence and could be stepping up, but it was a run that was largely based upon his athleticism and strength, out-hustling other players for loose balls, running the floor, and making the gritty play. That’s extremely valuable, but you also need players who can create looks for themselves. Gabe York is more of a spot-up shooter that runs off of off-ball screens to get open looks. Pitts is a solid role player, and Tarczewski has just never developed as the go-to offensive post player that was expected of him in his high-school career.
Then, in conjunction with that, some of the younger players who — at least in theory — have the skill to provide further offensive firepower haven’t proven themselves ready. Freshman Ray Smith was expected to be a guy ready to go early on, but his season was cut short in the preseason due to a knee injury. McDonald’s All-American Allonzo Trier has struggled adjusting to the college game early, looking tentative and shooting only 40 percent from the field. Sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright has struggled to truly create after stepping in at the point for McConnell, and freshman Justin Simon hasn’t been able to get minutes behind him.
Miller thought that his team’s effort level was good on Friday, but ultimately that the execution just isn’t quite there yet with some of the younger players.
“As a player, this isn’t eighth-grade basketball,” Miller said. “You have to come into the game and do your job. You have to defend, you have to play with great effort. When we call a set play, execute the play. You have to make open shots. Take care of the basketball. There isn’t just a birthright that you need to play more because you’re on the team.”
Given the high skill level but festering inexperience of these players, how does Miller balance trying to get his talented players acclimated to the college game with also winning games?
“Until we get some of our younger, more experienced players better, we have to hold the tide,” Miller believes. That’s what’s so tough about not having Kaleb now. If there’s a time where we’re vulnerable, it’s right here early in the year.”
Quite clearly, this is going to be Miller’s toughest coaching job of his career. Unlike the last few years, the team isn’t as skilled or as defined in its roles. And unlike the first season of his tenure, it’s clear that there isn’t a total absence of high-end talent. It’s right in the middle, and that makes it not only difficult, but it pulls him in many different directions as a coach.
He needs to find a way to develop young, skilled players. Then, he needs to put together sensible lineups with a group of new pieces. Those lineups have to keep everyone on the deep roster happy within their minutes and roles. Oh, and on top of that, he has to adjust to a changing collegiate landscape where his preferred pack-line defense can sometimes get players in foul-trouble on the perimeter due to the aggressive nature of its help responsibilities in the gaps.
Having a deep roster and figuring out how to make it work is a problem that many coaches would like to have. But like Miller said, at the moment there are plenty more questions than answers about where this Arizona team will end up.