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Arizona vs. NC State postgame: On the starting 5, freshmen, the defense, and Ayton’s shooting

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Some postgame thoughts after Wednesday’s loss

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-North Carolina State vs Arizona Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats suffered their first loss of the season Wednesday, falling 90-84 to the North Carolina State Wolfpack.

Our full recap can be found here. Here are some more postgame thoughts:


Freshmen aren’t producing

Aside from Deandre Ayton who posted yet another double-double with career-highs in points (27) and rebounds (14), Arizona basically got zero production from its freshmen Wednesday.

Here were the combined stats from Alex Barcello, Brandon Randolph, Ira Lee, and Emmanuel Akot who totaled 51 minutes of play:

  • 2 points
  • 1-9 FG, 0-3 3PT
  • 5 rebounds
  • 4 assists
  • 1 turnover
  • 1 steal
  • 2 blocks
  • 6 fouls

Akot got demoted from the starting lineup and only played four minutes and went scoreless, as did Barcello and Randolph.

This was Barcello’s first poor outing, but the other three non-Ayton freshmen haven’t done much all season (to be fair to Randolph, he is still returning from a concussion).

Sean Miller has praised the defensive ability of Randolph, Lee, and Akot but none of those guys have shown an outstanding ability to defend yet (Ayton struggles in that aspect, too).

In all, this freshman class just doesn’t seem to be as ready to contribute as last year’s was which is sorta surprising since it was more highly regarded.

It is hard to imagine that UA’s freshmen (again, Ayton not included) won’t pick up their play, but their performance so far has been disappointing. Lot of season left, though.


Starting lineup change didn’t work, but there might not have been a solution

Miller’s decision to start Dylan Smith in favor of Emmanuel Akot was interesting and I certainly didn’t disagree with it since Akot hasn’t exactly been super productive this season. It just didn’t pan out.

Smith only added to Arizona’s defensive issues, and had a team-worst -9 plus-minus. He was often beat off the dribble, and he fouled a 3-point shooter which obviously is a no-no.

The UNC Asheville transfer scored the game’s first basket, but went scoreless after that, finishing with two points on 1-4 shooting, taking a couple questionable shots early in the shot clock.

That said, aside from Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and Dusan Ristic no one else on the roster did much of anything, so it probably would not have mattered who started at small forward.

Obviously the good news here is that Rawle Alkins traveled with the team to the Bahamas and Miller said he should be back on the court shortly after Battle 4 Atlantis, so the team’s fifth-starter woes won’t be lasting too much longer.

Replacing him has definitely been more difficult than expected, though.


No defensive stopper

The worst problem to have defensively is being physically incapable of guarding a high level like the 2015-16 Arizona team was.

This team doesn’t have that problem. It has the size, quickness, depth, and athleticism to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams. It’s just a matter of fine tuning the details — like knowing the pick-and-roll coverage and forcing drivers to where there’s actually help defense — and playing with effort.

Before the trip to the Bahamas, Miller said that the players that are going to emerge in Arizona’s rotation are those that “hang their hat on defense.”

Well, his decision to play Akot just four minutes on Wednesday is perhaps a sign that he has not been satisfactory with Akot’s intensity on that side of the court.

Miller did call out Akot’s effort on the defensive glass earlier in the season, but also lauded the freshman for having defensive potential reminiscent of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Akot hasn’t lived up to that billing and really the only freshman, including Ayton, who has been OK defensively is Barcello.

The issue with that is Arizona’s freshmen should be the team’s best defenders. PJC, Trier, and Ristic are average on that end of the floor, but guys like Akot, Lee, Ayton, and Randolph shouldn’t be with the amount of athleticism they bring the table.

Miller asked himself earlier in the season who Arizona’s defensive stopper would be and right now the Wildcats don’t have one.

Maybe Alkins will be that guy, but until he returns and gets back into form, the Wildcats need someone else they can turn to defensively with the game on the line.

Would NC State guard Braxton Beverly have dropped 20 points on seven shots against an Arizona team that had Rondae or Kadeem Allen? I think not.


Poor 3-point shooting isn’t worrisome, but Ayton’s tendencies might be

Arizona shot just 2-17 from behind the arc which was easily its worst shooting night of the season, but I tend to believe that’s more of an outlier than a regression to the mean.

Trier, Barcello, and Smith went a combined 0-10 from 3. Trier had five of those misses, and several of them were open looks, ones that he will make more often than not. They just didn’t fall Wednesday.

Maybe the awkward ballroom lighting had something to do with it, but it was probably just an off-night.

The one trend that might actually be a little concerning is Ayton’s increasing usage from behind the arc.

Miller was clear that he doesn’t mind Ayton shooting 3s when open, but the 7-footer has taken eight 3s the last two games, making just two of them.

During that same two-game span, Ayton was 11-15 inside the arc, not to mention the fouls — and free throws — he drew under the basket (he took 17 free throws on Wednesday alone).

We know Ayton can shoot and him being able to step out on the perimeter opens up the floor for others, but four 3s per game might simply be excessive for him when you consider just how lethal he is near the basket.

Find that happy medium.


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire