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Buchanan Report: Midseason Analysis

Buchanan Report: Midseason Analysis

Last season's team didn't feel like a usual 23-win club that reached its conference tournament title game.

As the Arizona Wildcats enter the second half of the regular season with a road trip on the Oregon Trail, it is appropriate to reflect on the performance of the team thus far.

But first, let’s step back, and note the main deficiency of last season’s team. As we all know, Jesse Perry, undersized at 6’7” was the tallest starter. Perry played with a lot of heart and drive, but Arizona’s failure to make the NCAA tourney last year is traced primarily to being outmatched up front, with both Perry and Solomon Hill playing out of position. All told, Arizona didn’t have a true center, power forward or small forward, the season-starting point guard was dismissed from the team mid-year, Parrom was a shadow of his freshman self due to the well documented shooting incident, Jordin Mayes suffered a stress fracture, and still this team played for the conference championship game and won 23 games overall. Huh?

In contrast, when Sean Miller arrived at Arizona, he was able to snag recruits Kevin Parrom, Solomon Hill, and most importantly, the versatile Derrick Williams. Williams averaged 15.7 points per game his freshman year and 19.5 points per game in his sophomore year. Incredibly, the greatest change in Williams’ scoring came in the number of attempts from the three point arc and in the percentage made from deep in his sophomore season compared to his freshman campaign. In his freshman year, Williams only attempted 16 three pointers for the entire 2009-2010 season, making just four (25%). As a sophomore Williams shot over 57% from behind the three point line, making 42 of 74. Overall, from the field, Williams shot 59.5%. Williams became a threat to score from anywhere on the court, and did.

Williams’ outstanding all- around game covered a multitude of sins and allowed other players to fill key roles. And most importantly, the rest of the team spread the scoring load and minutes played evenly throughout the rest of the roster. I was surprised, in retrospect, to find that Jamelle Horne, was seventh in minutes played and points scored, averaging 18.1 and 6.1 respectively that year. No other player apart from Williams scored in double figures, but the next 7 players averaged 9.7 (Lamont Jones) to 4.9 (Jordin Mayes) per game.

The point is that Williams was a dominant force – a player who afforded everyone else on the team a slight margin of error. Honestly, without looking it up, how many would guess that only two points per game separated KyleFogg, Hill, Parrom, Perry and Horne in the season Arizona went to the Elite Eight (8.1 ppg to 6.1 ppg)? This is also the year that some fans remember fondly as being a pretty good season for then-freshman Jordin Mayes, and although he did hit some key shots down the stretch, for the year he averaged 4.9 points and was eighth in minutes played at 14.3.

Fast forward a year, subtract Williams, Jones and Horne and Arizona had lost almost half of the team’s scoring (35 points per game) and it’s easy to see why Arizona struggled, especially with Perry playing the post.

For the 2012-2013 campaign, Miller has integrated three key freshmen, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett. As a result, Arizona suddenly has more size, but it hasn’t exactly been a quick fix. Combined, the three freshmen bigs are fifth through seventh in minutes played, and together score as much as Derrick Williams did in his sophomore year (19.9 points per game).

Not surprisingly, Arizona’s toughest games have featured experienced or outstanding post players (Florida, San Diego State, Colorado and Utah). Thanks to last second heroics in each case, Arizona has managed four close wins.

The upshot so far is that Arizona remains unbeaten, but is still inexperienced at the post and power forward positions, unless Solomon Hill moves to the four which is exactly what has happened in many of Arizona tight games.

So, although Sean Miller has filled the need for size with one recruiting class, their inexperience in the college game has created gaps for Arizona both offensively and defensively.

In a recent analysis of Arizona’s defense, WSR’s Gary Randazzo showed the intricacies of Coach Miller’s brand of man to man defense. Defense isn’t a skill that is stressed very much for many high school stars, and many freshmen enter Division 1 play having relied on their size and athleticism to cruise through high school and AAU ball. The learning curve is steep and occurring right before our eyes, and to survive in conference play adjustments will need to be made.

Is Arizona better off on the front line this year than last? Of course, but with four new players among the top seven in the rotation, suffering through turnovers, bad shot selection, and missed defensive assignments is probably to be expected.

Arizona is blending the talent of a bunch of guys who haven’t really played that much basketball with each other. Hill and Johnson played the most minutes together last year, which is nice but overall two players out of the 8-10 that see minutes on a given night this season isn’t enough to completely gel right away. So, is it any wonder there are so many questions about a team that is still unbeaten? In short, there isn’t a Derrick Williams on the floor to bail Arizona out. Not one single, dominant, take over the game and throttle the opposition by the throat type. And that is why Arizona has had some close calls. But there is balance and skill among the upper classmen, and they have kind of evenly taken the keel and guided the team through some rough waters.

Stay tuned. At the halfway mark, and entering the team’s first conference road trip Arizona may drop a game or even two this weekend. However, a loss now wouldn’t be the end of the world because even at 14-0 today, the team will likely be a better and even more dangerous team in March when floor chemistry has fully matured.

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