The Arizona Wildcats unofficially open the 2018-19 season Tuesday with an exhibition against Division II school Western New Mexico.
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Networks. Here are some things to watch.
All on one bench
The Red-Blue Game was a decent primer for the regular season, but the first exhibition will provide a much more extensive glimpse at this year’s team — and not just because the game is longer.
Arizona’s players will all be on the same bench this time, so Miller will have to make realistic decisions regarding the rotation, including forming a starting 5. He is usually not one to tinker with the starting lineup a lot, so what you see Tuesday is probably what you will get on opening night, barring any injuries or suspensions.
My guess: Arizona starts Justin Coleman, Brandon Williams, Brandon Randolph, Ryan Luther and Chase Jeter.
Other personnel questions that will be answered: who are the first subs off the bench? How will Coleman and Williams divvy up point-guard duties? Will Emmanuel Akot spend more time at the 3 or the 4? Who is going to lead the scoring charge? How will Miller stagger the thin frontcourt?
This is also the first opportunity to gauge the newcomers in a real-game setting, which is a big deal since there are a lot of them and most will be big determinants in the Wildcats’ success this season.
The caveat: one exhibition is not a large enough sample to make widespread conclusions about a player or team, good or bad.
Ira Lee’s status
OK, so maybe the team won’t be at full strength.
After Ira Lee was cited for a super extreme DUI in August, Miller said on Oct. 1 that discipline would be handed out “when that time comes.”
Well, it’s now late October and there has still been no official word on Lee’s punishment.
Lee will probably be suspended for at least a regular-season game or two, but this is not the regular season, so he may very well play Tuesday. ... Or he will show up in street clothes and the UA will release a statement 30 minutes before tipoff saying he’s been suspended.
Every year we hear that Arizona plans to play at a faster pace than the previous year, and the players always feed into that hype.
“We like going up the floor as fast as possible, trying to beat the defense no matter what it is,” Williams said last week. “That’s easy points and Coach Miller loves those.”
Yet, the Wildcats never actually do pick up the pace. They have finished 224th or lower in adjusted tempo in each of the past three seasons, per KenPom. (Out of 351 teams.)
That said, the personnel of this year’s team does lend itself to an uptempo brand of basketball. The Wildcats are teeming with guards and wings, but short on big men. And the one guy they do have that’s 6-foot-10 or taller — Chase Jeter — is extremely mobile.
The problem is you have to create turnovers to consistently play at a quick pace and Arizona just doesn’t do that. The Wildcats have finished 250th or lower in opponent turnover percentage in six of Miller’s nine seasons at Arizona.
The pack-line defense is a conservative philosophy in that it does not emphasize trapping or gambling into passing lanes. So until the Wildcats deviate from that and start to become more aggressive, it’s hard to see them ever becoming a team that lives in transition like Lute Olson’s squads back in the day, even if they have the right players to do it.
Still, there probably is some room to play faster if they simply get the ball up the court quicker after misses. Having two playmakers like Coleman and Williams on the floor at the same time — and plenty of athletes around them — suggest that’s feasible.
Western New Mexico is awful and will miss a lot of shots — they were picked to finish 10th in their conference and only won six games last year — so I imagine we will see some of that Tuesday.
But will Arizona sustain that pace when the games start to count and the opponents get tougher? History says you shouldn’t count on it.
Another stylistic change you might see from Arizona this year: More 3s. As Miller said at media day, that is one of the byproducts that usually comes with playing small.
Arizona averaged 18.3 3-point attempts per game last season, meaning only 32.1 percent of its shots came from behind the arc. That is an extremely low percentage, ranking 302nd in the country, per KenPom.
I’d expect to see an uptick this year and maybe even a significant one. This team does have some good shooters — or at least guys who can be good shooters.
However, the Wildcats will have a major size and athleticism advantage against Western New Mexico, so it might not be in their best interest to fire an ungodly amount of 3s in that game.
The rebounding margin
WNMU had a minus-6.6 rebounding margin last season, so this is a team Arizona should brutalize on the glass.
The key word: should.
The Wildcats have to replace the rebounding prowess of Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic, and their lack of size could pose some problems for them in that department.
Jeter and Luther will hold their own against a small WNMU team, so what you really want to see is wings like Randolph, Akot and/or Dylan Smith making a difference on the glass.
Those three posted extremely low rebounding percentages last season, but will need to raise their production this season if the Wildcats are going to be a solid rebounding team.
Williams and Coleman will have to do their fair share as well, assuming they are going to be eating up most of the minutes at guard.
And back to the pace thing: when your guards and wings rebound, it only makes it easier to push the ball in transition.