The non-conference portion of the Arizona Wildcats schedule is behind us, and conference play picks up on January 3rd with a trip up to Tempe.
We take a look at what the takeaways from non-con play were. Let us know what you think now!
Jason Bartel: What's the biggest positive you took away from non-conference season?
Gabe Encinas: This team is finally starting to come together. Going into the season I anticipated about three losses in the non-conference schedule, and now looking back on that Providence loss, I get a little greedy thinking about how that is our only loss to date. Allonzo Trier has been balling out, and along with Gabe York and Kadeem Allen, those seem to be the go-to scorers, with Trier now being the most consistent. Mark Tollefsen seems to be a lot more confident in his role, and I like the way Justin Simon has started to pick up some minutes. I feel like over time this team will get better, and it should only get better once Kaleb Tarczewski comes back. Or at least I'm hoping that's the case, because this team has finally found some rhythm without him in the lineup.
Brandon Hill: This team has a variety of scoring options on any given night. Recent Sean Miller teams had moments, sometimes entire games, where you simply didn't know where the scoring would come from. Because of how great the pack-line has operated, the Cats have been able to grind out opponents even if they only scored 60 points. This year's team has three legitimate scorers who can get 20+ on a given night (Anderson, York, and Trier) as well as several others (Ristic, Tollefsen, Allen) who've provided some nice scoring punch at times. They're not as efficient as recent teams but more explosive.
Ryan Kelapire: The team is more than capable of handling adversity. They have been without Kaleb Tarczewski for a few weeks now, Ray Smith is out for the season, and Ryan Anderson and Kadeem Allen have both been banged up as well. I thought Zeus' injury in particular would be rather devastating, but they've weathered the storm remarkably well. The team has managed to play through the issues and they seem to be improving each week too.
Ivan Leonard: I am impressed by how great the offense is and the fact that they can improve on that end as the season progresses is a great sign. Ryan Anderson is going to consistently provide a solid outing while freshman Allonzo Trier has been playing like a seasoned vet since the Providence loss. He is unstoppable when heading to the basket, consistent in the mid-range, and has gone 10-20 from three in the past five games, so teams cannot play him for the drive. And when those two are off, Gabe York showed in the Gonzaga game that he can hit a timely jumper or four to get the team back on track and stop the game from getting out of hand.
Alec Sills-Trausch: Saying that everyone above nailed most of the positive and I'm not into recycling good ideas, I'm going to give a great big shout out to the McKale Center crowd. Of the nine home games, five of them have been sellouts and with all games included, McKale has been filled at 98%. With unimposing teams coming to McKale so far this season, that's fantastic! As Wildcat fans, we're so blessed to have some of the greatest fans in the country and it's good to know some things never change. One more thing, I think we need to point out the play of Dusan Ristic, who is averaging eight points and five rebounds a game filling in mostly full-time for Kaleb Tarczewski. While still raw, he has shown an efficient offensive skill set which can be counted on and maybe even teach Zeus a thing or two.
David Potts: That we can win without Tarczewski. I still think that Zeus needs to come back for Arizona to be able to make a tournament run, but the fact that Arizona was able to beat Gonzaga and UNLV without him gives me some hope that the Wildcats will be able to stay competitive while he's gone and get even better once he's back.
Matt Sheeley: I totally agree with Ryan's point about how tenacious this squad is proving to be. But I specifically want to talk about the offense. This is a very inexperienced team in terms of how long the group has been together. Considering four starters are gone from last year plus all the injuries (and the Pitts disappearance), it's been freshmen, transfers and Gabe York. Sean Miller has proven to be a defensive coach through his years in Tucson. You almost expect the team to be stingy on that side of the ball, no matter the roster. But it's the offense that has been the story. They attack relentlessly. Arizona has scored 80+ in five straight games. This is the first time that's happened since Lute's final season walking the Wildcat sideline. That was NINE years ago!
James Schlittenhart: Sean Miller can coach. Maybe that was obvious to a lot of folks, but I truly believed that for much of his time at Arizona, he has been able to succeed based more on superior recruits than coaching acumen. So far this season, I think Miller deserves a significant amount of credit for the way he's handled this team that isn't necessarily loaded across the board and still come away with a top 10 ranking and only one loss.
JB: What's the biggest negative you took away?
GE: The lack of a momentum playmaker. The past few years, Arizona has always had a guy or two that could come up with a block, diving steal, or electrifying dunk that swiftly shifts the momentum. Those plays quickly got the momentum necessary to pull away, or even mount the comeback. Whether that was Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson or T.J. McConnell, Arizona always seemed to have that. Gabe York has his dunk attempts here and there, maybe Mark Tollefsen with the oop, but none like the ones we've seen in the past.
BH: I've mentioned it before but the main concern I have, and it flies in the face of the first question, is while this team does finally have multiple go-to scorers, they do not have a go-to defender out on the wings. It just shows what a nice luxury a guy like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (or Aaron Gordon for his one season) was for the Cats; long, versatile players who could defend multiple positions to key on the other team's best player(s). Hopefully by the teeth of league play someone emerges.
RK: Brandon hit the nail on the head. The team's lack of a go-to defender has been very evident at times, and I don't really think that issue will be resolved this season. The roster obviously isn't changing and I don't see a player on the team that will take a huge leap from now until the end of the season. Though hopefully I'm wrong and someone like Kadeem Allen or Justin Simon becomes that lockdown defender the team desperately needs.
IL: I also agree with Brandon in that they lack a go-to wing defender to slow down opponents on the perimeter. Last season they held Chasson Randle to a 4-13 performance, Joe Young to a 7-19 outing, and future lottery pick D'Angelo Russell to a 3-19 performance due to their perimeter defense, but this year they are really lacking in that area. Unless Justin Simon matures quickly or Elliott Pitts comes back from his sabbatical even better on that end, this team might just have to outscore everybody for once in the Sean Miller era. Their team defense is solid as usual but their need for a lockdown defender might be exposed when they play a team with multiple scorers on the wing like Cal does with Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, and company.
AST: Parker Jackson-Cartwright's development, or lackthereof, is something that should be noted. While his assist-to-turnover ratio is solid, everything else about this offensive game is jello-like. As a point guard who shoots 33% overall and 20% from behind the arc, him being on the court essentially clogs the lane, as teams are now playing so far off of him the paint has become a clogged artery. Last year, the sophomore PG shot 45% from the field and 39% via the 3pt line. Hopefully as the team gets into the rhythm of the conference schedule, he and the entire team will settle into a more consistent playing style.
DP: The offense still really worries me. Admittedly, the offense seems to have clicked in recent weeks, but this has been against relatively weak teams (with a home win against a marginal UNLV team as the only real test). I'm not confident that the offense will hold up against Pac-12 competition. The three-point shooting, in particular, has been very bad, with a team average of only 32.6% from three and only one player averaging more than an attempt a game - Gabe York - above 35%. If this is how the team shoots against NAU, Long Beach State, and Missouri, how will the Wildcats shoot against Oregon, USC, or Cal?
MS: Oddly enough, it's also offense related. The three-point shooting is a concern to me. Perhaps my expectations were too high for this area but I expected it to be one of Arizona's strengths this season. Complaining feels silly considering they're attacking the rim so well. But I do wonder what will happen when Arizona doesn't get many calls when going at the rim. Can they flat out shoot their way to a win? Will it have to be Gabe York's irrational confidence to win a game? Or can others chime in? It'll be interesting to watch.
JS: I sincerely wonder if any of my negative takeaways from the beginning of this season are solely based on my own unfair expectations for Arizona basketball.The team is 11-1, has a big win over Gonzaga on the road, and lost only to a team that is a lock to make the tournament with a potential lottery pick in the starting five. Do I wish the defense was as stingy as last year? Of course. Do I wish the offense had Mike Bibby on the perimeter? You bet. Are either of those things realistic or fair? Not a chance. I'm overwhelmingly pleasantly surprised with how this team has performed to this point. Obviously, the defense is still a concern, but I trust the oft-praised defensive mind of Sean Miller to fix that as the games wear on.