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Arizona basketball: Wildcats in a good spot at Christmas break, but await ‘good health’ and ‘good news’

Sean Miller is happy where this team is at the moment, but knows how much better it would be at full strength

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats wrapped up their non-conference schedule Tuesday with a blowout victory over New Mexico, and now have ten days until their next game, which is against the California Golden Bears on Dec. 30 in the Pac-12 opener.

Arizona will be off for four of those days (Dec. 21-24) before it returns to practice in the evening of Christmas Day to prepare for its Bay Area road trip.

It provides a much-needed break for the short-handed Wildcats.

“Every one of our players can’t wait to get out of here and I don’t blame them,” Sean Miller said. “Most of the teams in years prior, they would always save one game for after the holidays. I like giving our guys a true Christmas break, and then it’s the end of non-conference, don’t worry about anything and come back and get ready for conference. That’s our philosophy.”

“College basketball, because we go through two semesters, the way the recruiting is set up, you can’t name a holiday that something’s not going on in college basketball, unfortunately, so this break at Christmas comes at a good time for everybody. It gives you some sanity, it allows you to step away and I think when you come back, you’re coming back to focus on the Pac-12, you’re focusing on the next thing that’s up on our season.”

Miller mentioned that sometimes time away from the game can cause a team to lose focus, but he’s not too worried about that with this team.

“That’s probably the thing that I like the most about our team,” Miller said, “I really feel like we’ve been ready for every game. People sometimes will point to (the) Gonzaga (game), that’s the one game we really didn’t have a chance. Parker (Jackson-Cartwright) got hurt in the second half against Texas Southern, we only had like a day and a half turnaround. We had no shootaround. We’re playing a really, really good team. We just did the best we could. We weren’t able to be as organized as we needed to be to win that game. Since that, we’ve become better.”

Arizona has won its last five games since then, giving it an 11-2 record heading into its Christmas break.

Given the team has had seven players for “all but a handful of games,” Miller is satisfied with the team’s play so far.

“I like the fact that we’re 11-2, I really do,” he said. “I guess we could be 13-0 or 12-1 but I think considering the circumstances, I think all of us feel like job well done for our group. And now it really comes down to how much we can improve and how much better we can become during the next stretch which obviously is the Pac-12.”

Part of the reason Miller is content is because he feels his team has not only played well through adversity, but it has also faced a wide variety of teams.

“We played six games away from McKale, a true road game at Missouri, the three neutral games that we scheduled — Texas A&M, Gonzaga, and Michigan State — we played three good teams there, maybe one that’s better than the other two, but in big environments, each of them had their own strengths,” Miller said. “One peace of mind I have is that we have played a number of different types of styles and teams.”

Miller would have another peace of mind if Arizona can get some of its sidelined players back. Parker Jackson-Cartwright should be back within the new few weeks as he continues his recovery from a high ankle sprain, but it’s still unclear when or if Allonzo Trier will return.

If this team gets to full strength, though? Look out.

“If we could get some good health and some good news moving forward, it would be nice to have our full allotment of players and if that’s the case, I think this team has a big upside,” Miller said. “And some of the experiences that our younger players have received because of the circumstances, I think really add and make us maybe a little further along in conference play than we otherwise would have been.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire