Before the season started, Sean Miller was asked how he was going to manage all the talent the Arizona Wildcats were perceived to have.
The Wildcats were returning four starters and adding five highly-touted freshmen plus a transfer in Dylan Smith.
Talent galore — or so it seemed.
Arizona’s starting five has been as good as advertised, but the Wildcats have struggled to get much of anything from the rest of their roster. Brandon Randolph, who got to start when Rawle Alkins was out with a foot injury, is UA’s top bench scorer, averaging 6.8 points per game.
Dylan Smith is second at just 4.8 points per game.
Randolph has showed flashes of being a complete scorer, Ira Lee can defend and rebound a little bit, Smith and Alex Barcello can shoot, and Emmanuel Akot and Keanu Pinder have intriguing physical tools, but none of them have been reliable contributors, each with their own glaring flaws (or injuries) — hence why Miller is still shuffling Arizona’s rotation even as Pac-12 begins.
“I don’t know if we have a deep team,” he said Thursday.
“We’re trying to figure out who we’re playing. That’s not because I’m not playing who I want to play. That’s because it’s very difficult to determine who should and that’s not a good thing. We have a lot of guys working hard. We’ve had a couple great practices since we’ve returned (from Christmas break). We had that competitive spirit in practice because there’s really no surefire thing once you get past a few players because we’re hoping it sorts itself out, but that really hasn’t been the case yet.”
The lack of bench production burned the Wildcats in the Bahamas where they lost three straight, especially since Alkins was sidelined.
But when Arizona beat then-No. 7 Texas A&M in Phoenix earlier this month, Arizona got a rare 13 points from Smith,.
The Wildcats (10-3) will need similar production Saturday when they host the third-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils — the best team Arizona has faced to date.
“We need our bench to come in and do a real good job in this game,” Miller said. “I think if we had the opportunity to be in the game, to compete and have a chance to win this game, I think we’ll have a lot of good play from guys coming in off the bench.”
Not only has Arizona’s bench struggled to score this season but most of its members have had their fair share of struggles defensively.
Arizona’s starting five can produce enough offensively that it doesn’t necessarily need a huge scoring outburst from someone like Randolph or Smith to beat ASU — though it would certainly help — but at minimum it needs those players to turn in strong defensive efforts and not be liabilities on that end of the floor.
If not, the Sun Devils (12-0), who are top-five in the country in offensive efficiency and can score at all three levels of the court, will pick apart the Wildcats’ defense, which ranks just 52nd in efficiency per KenPom.
“Our bench … they have to be able to defend,” Miller said. “They have to be responsible in a game like this. You can’t be that player that checks in the game and gives up four baskets and says ‘coach, why did you take me out?’ That’s the type of team Arizona State has.
“So defensively, you don’t have to be perfect, but you really have to understand that this is a very difficult challenge to keep them from having that big night offensively like they’ve had throughout the season.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire