The Arizona Wildcats will return to the floor in McKale Center on Wednesday to take on someone other than themselves.
They host an exhibition against the Division II Eastern New Mexico Greyhounds at 7 p.m. PT on the Pac-12 Networks.
Here are a couple things to keep an eye on in what should be anything but a close game.
UA’s fifth starter
If injuries didn’t exist, Arizona’s starting lineup would be obvious: Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Deandre Ayton, and Dusan Ristic.
However, Jackson-Cartwright will not play Wednesday due to a minor ankle sprain and Alkins is out until December with a broken foot, so two spots in the starting lineup are in question against Eastern New Mexico.
Freshman point guard Alex Barcello will likely take Jackson-Cartwright’s spot at point guard, but who the fifth starter will be is less clear.
Dylan Smith is out for violating team rules, so he’s not an option (though it sounds like he will be once he is reinstated), so we’re looking at Brandon Randolph or Emmanuel Akot starting at the 3.
Both will play plenty since three UA players will be out and minutes will be more available than usual, but it’ll be interesting to see who Sean Miller rolls with.
You would think the one he chooses to start is inherently further along than the other in their development, but that’s not necessarily true since Miller views them as “very different players.”
“I think the future would be that they could on the court together,” he said. “One on one lane, one on the other because they complement each other exceptionally well. Emmanuel, as a young player, his strengths would be what Brandon is looking to improve. And Brandon’s strengths are what Emmanuel is looking to improve. I’m confident that both guys will add to that improvement.”
My choice would be Randolph, but that’s based on the super small sample size that we’ve seen him and Akot on the floor (the two Spain exhibitions and the Red-Blue Game).
Ayton & Ristic
We didn’t see Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic play together during the Red-Blue Game since they were on opposite teams, so Wednesday will give us our first look at that duo.
Ristic’s low-post game benefitted a lot last year from having Lauri Markkanen — and the space he created — alongside him, but Ayton should be a better overall complement as he has attributes (athleticism, length, strength, etc.) that Ristic doesn’t — plus he can shoot, too.
Ristic and Markkanen both had stretches where they went M.I.A. on defense, allowing teams like Washington State and Stanford to do damage in the paint and control the offensive glass, but that should happen less often with Ayton around this year.
And it definitely shouldn’t happen Wednesday as Eastern New Mexico’s tallest player is 6-foot-8.
Arizona should eviscerate the Greyhounds in the paint.
As usual, the Wildcats are expected to face a lot of zone defense this year. The physically outmatched Greyhounds will surely deploy one of their own.
Miller said Tuesday that he thinks Arizona is “more confident” against non-man-to-man defenses this year than usual, in part because they are practicing more against them ... and because of Ayton.
“Some of it is the approach we’ve taken, some of it might be the team that we have, the skill level, and Deandre I’ve found to be really, really good against the zone because he can do a lot of different things,” Miller said. “He can pass, he can shoot in the middle, he can shoot the ball from the perimeter, you can move him around, you can throw the ball over the top of the zone. He’s obviously an excellent offensive rebounder and he’s smart. He knows what he’s doing, so he makes his teammates better.
“So he’s really valuable against the zone offensively. I think it’s great to know that already, so now putting him in the right position and putting the rest of the guys in the right positions, he can make his teammates better.”
A key component to a zone offense is competent 3-point shooting. Arizona did not get that in the Red-Blue Game, shooting 2-21 from 3 as a team.
Jackson-Cartwright, Smith, and Alkins are three of the team’s best shooters, so it wouldn’t be that surprising to see Arizona have some hiccups against the zone, unless Ayton just takes matters into his own hands.
The point guards
As mentioned above, Barcello is expected to start at point guard for the Wildcats. Miller made it sound like he’s the No. 2 point guard and Trier is the No. 3.
Akot, who Miller mentioned as a point guard earlier in the offseason, is now “exclusively” practicing on the wing.
Seeing that Barcello has never played at the collegiate level and Trier has rarely played point guard since arriving at Arizona, this should be a good test for both of them.
Point guard play has been one of Arizona’s major weaknesses since T.J. McConnell graduated, and having Barcello and/or Trier develop into a reliable backup would be a step in the right direction.
As terrific as Kadeem Allen was defensively at Arizona, he had a higher turnover percentage than assist percentage as UA’s primary backup point guard last year.
Arizona can do better.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire