Burdened by a lengthy shooting slump spanning back to last season, Dylan Smith felt it was only a matter of time before he broke out of it.
“I just have to regain my confidence on the floor,” he said Friday. “I’ve been shooting it well in practice so I feel it coming.”
He finally found his rhythm Sunday.
Smith had missed 13 consecutive treys dating back to last season and missed his first one Sunday, before drilling two in the first half to snap that streak. He then sank two more in the second half for good measure.
Smith nearly banked in a deep, off-balanced 3 at the end of the first half, too, but his shot rimmed out at the buzzer.
Even when Smith was slumping he managed to contribute in other ways, and that continued Sunday. The UNC Asheville transfer logged seven boards and two assists, while playing menacing defense, drawing a charge and forcing a timeout with suffocating ball pressure.
“I’ll tell you, there aren’t too many players that play harder than Dylan,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “If you look at his total rebounds in the two games we’ve played you’d think he was a frontcourt player. And his defense, he reminds me the track that a guy like Kyle Fogg was on throughout his career.
“By the time Kyle got to the end, he was one of our conference’s best perimeter defenders and I think Dylan has that makeup and he’s smart, he’s hard playing and it was nice to see him make a couple shots.”
Smith’s effort seemed to be contagious, as Arizona held the Mustangs to 38 percent shooting. The Wildcats also outrebounded Cal Poly 44-32, allowing just five offensive boards.
That came just a few days after they surrendered 16 to Houston Baptist in their season-opener.
“As a team we’re like every team in the country, we’re still figuring some things out,” said UA forward Ryan Luther. “Coach (Miller) and the whole staff was emphasizing rebounding, playing harder. We thought in the first game we gave up too many offensive rebounds and didn’t play physical or aggressive enough.”
Arizona missed 11 of its first 15 shots, but wound up shooting 46 percent overall and 9 for 23 from 3 against Cal Poly’s zone. The Wildcats led 41-34 at halftime and boatraced the Mustangs in the second half, outscoring them 41-27, leading by as many as 32 points.
Arizona finished with 16 assists and, Miller’s favorite part, only seven turnovers, what he says is a great sign for a team that is breaking in so many new faces in November.
“Coach has done a good job getting us prepared for the zone. We’ve been working on it since the first day of practice,” Luther said. “We just tried to get the ball in the high post and not be stationary. We were able to screen the top of the zone sometimes, get some alleys to drive, and then from there we found each other.”
Luther led the way with 17 points and five rebounds, making three 3s. His frontcourt mate Chase Jeter had a career-high 16 points to go along with six boards. Ira Lee, who returned from a one-game suspension, had six points and eight rebounds in 13 minutes, providing a spark off the bench.
“Our depth inside is something we’re working to develop, but ... having all those guys playing well and healthy, it gives us a better opportunity to rebound and do some things that we’re going to need to do moving forward,” Miller said.
Brandon Randolph and Brandon Williams were uncharacteristically quiet in the scoring column, dropping 10 and nine points, respectively, but their teammates picked up the slack.
“With this year’s team we don’t have as much of a guy that’s going to fill it up on the scoreboard like we had with Allonzo (Trier), Rawle (Alkins), Deandre (Ayton) last year,” Jeter said. “Different guys are going to have their time.”
While Williams did not score in double figures, he did tally eight assists and two steals. The freshman has 13 assists and zero turnovers through two games, despite still learning the ropes at both guard spots.
“That’s excellent,” Miller said.
The first half, although played at a brisk pace with only 14 fouls called, started as an offensive struggle for both sides. The Wildcats missed 8 of 9 shots during one stretch, allowing Cal Poly to keep it tied at 12-12 midway through the period.
But after a timeout, Randolph hit a pull-up, then Luther made a corner 3 before throwing down a breakaway dunk to make it 19-12.
Earlier in the half, Justin Coleman dropped off a pass to Luther in transition, where he drilled a triple from the top of the arc to make it 10-7. Luther had a team-high 10 first-half points.
Smith drained a pair of 3s to extend the lead to 30-22 and the Wildcats were 6 for 14 from distance in the period.
Luther scored two quick buckets out of the locker room to make it a 10-point game with 17 minutes to play, and Cal Poly was unable to cut the deficit to single digits from there.
Smith uncorked two more 3s in transition to extend the lead to 61-39 with 12:08 left, capping an 18-0 run for Arizona.
The Wildcats’ bench scored 27 points and they hope that sort of collective effort will help them prove they are “better than the outside world thinks.”
“We don’t have a ton of size, but we have some good players that don’t start the game,” said Miller, whose team was picked to finish fourth in a weak Pac-12. “With that you can cultivate that hard-playing team, a team that hustles, a team that can play full-court, and a team that on any given night can get a scoring punch from guys that don’t start the game. All coaches love that and I think we have the capability of having that here on this year’s team.”