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Arizona vs. Utah: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's time to shine

The Wildcats need a lift, and freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson could be the ticket moving forward

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Let's say there's a very thin grey area for the Arizona Wildcats if they see themselves as true national title contenders. If both Gabe York and Elliott Pitts turn into 10 point-per-game scorers, that would be on the very, very wishful end of thinking. If nothing changes with Sean Miller's team moving forward, that's the more daunting end of the spectrum.

The Wildcats won't ever be bad because they still roll out one of the fiercest defensive starting lineups in the nation. Yet, if we're asked to pick one likely but realistic tweak that would do the most to help Arizona become the team it thought it was before Brandon Ashley's injury, then let's call it a blossoming Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

"We lost a really talented player, somebody who gave us a number of things we no longer have," Miller said of Ashley during his Tuesday teleconference call, noting how the hot Colorado Buffaloes have moved on without Spencer Dinwiddie. "We have to follow that same way and you know, for us, it's to figure out with the group we have, what's the best bet to win games."

"It's still a quandary in terms of trying to match up with those guys." -Utah's Larry Krystkowiak

They'll aim to learn more about their revamped roles Wednesday night in Salt Lake City against a Utah Utes squad that has won three of its last four games.

Hollis-Jefferson has averaged 13 points and 7.7 rebounds in the last three games as a starter, but there's room to grow.

His jumper isn't so broken -- it's just rigid. He's pushing Nick Johnson as the team's best perimeter defender, simply because he has size, length and the intangibles. Didn't you see him switch on to Arizona State guard Jermaine Marshall with great success last week? At least, he did have success until he sunk too deep into the paint with help defense, allowing Marshall to bury a few crucial jumpers.

The offensive end is where the freshman forward could grow, because his defensive tools are already there. Hollis-Jefferson played 45 minutes against ASU and shot the ball four times. While there's decent reasoning for his apprehension as the Sun Devils packed the paint and kept him from driving, there's also a wonder if he could be a little more aggressive on that end.

There's also the chance for him to see extended time on Utah forward Jordan Loveridge or guard Delon Wright. Aaron Gordon locked up Loveridge quite well in the Wildcats' 65-56 win over coach Larry Krystkowiak's squad on Jan. 26. Loveridge, the Utes' second leading scorer, went 4-for-14 from the floor and finished with 13 points. Wright, meanwhile, went for a team-high 19.

Miller sees moving forward with a different roster as a process.

The first step for Arizona is finding an offensive spark, and that could be mighty difficult with three centers tending to Kaleb Tarczewski and Utah's length and athleticism being up to par. So a little more slashing and even some mid-range pull-ups from Hollis-Jefferson wouldn't hurt. It's best to at least keep the Utes honest.

Or, maybe Gabe York and Elliott Pitts can combine for 20.

"They're going to miss Brandon, there's no doubt about that," Krystkowiak said. "It's still a quandary in terms of trying to match up with those guys."

Finding Johnson's jumper

Nick Johnson has struggled with his shot of late, and he went 5-for-20 against ASU last Friday. Miller doesn't see it as a big concern. Just a shooting slump, apparently.

"He just has to work through it," the UA coach said on the Pac-12 teleconference call on Tuesday. "Nick, the value he brings to the table is very comprehensive. We've been able to be in really tough games sometimes when he's not shooting well."