The Arizona Wildcats routed Cal Poly 82-61 on Sunday to improve to 2-0.
Better than the sum of their parts?
The Wildcats aren’t blessed with as much size or talent as usual this season, but what, if anything, can they do to offset that?
Shoot more 3s, play hard, box out, be aggressive on the perimeter, share the ball, and push the pace are all things Sean Miller has mentioned before.
He added a new solution Sunday: Utilize their depth.
“We just have to do the best we can,” he said. “I think we have some guys who don’t start the game this year that really contribute. There isn’t a big difference between the starters and I would say three, maybe four players off the bench. And those guys off the bench give us a lift.”
The bench finished with 27 points Sunday and Dylan Smith and Ira Lee were particularly effective in relief. Smith had 12 points and seven rebounds, while swishing four 3s and setting the tone defensively for the second straight game.
“Dylan being able to take and make open 3s is something that’s going to help our team,” Miller said.
Lee returned from his suspension and had six points and a career-high eight rebounds in 13 minutes. It was the first time Arizona’s frontcourt was fully healthy and/or available, and it proved to be an effective unit, albeit Cal Poly was not exactly an intimidating opponent.
“He was really good tonight,” fellow forward Ryan Luther said of Lee. “He had a couple drives from the high post and really his energy. He’s guarding the other team’s big guy and it takes the stress off me and Chase (Jeter) to have another person like Ira.”
Lee fouled out and defending without fouling has been an issue for him dating back to last season, but Miller didn’t seem to mind.
“A couple calls could have gone either way, but he did a good job,” he said.
Miller also liked how Emmanuel Akot, who saw some time at the 5, got after it defensively and thinks Alex Barcello and Devonaire Doutrive are only going to get better. They are underclassmen, after all.
If that happens and Arizona’s bench can prop its starting lineup the way it did Sunday (that sounds weird to say after last season), perhaps the Wildcats can be better than the sum of their parts and surprise some people this year.
At least that’s what they seem to think.
“I think all of them are out to prove that our team is better than the outside world thinks,” Miller said.
“We don’t have a ton of size, but we have some good players that don’t start the game … 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.”
Fun stat: Arizona’s bench has scored 54 points through the first two games this season. The reserves scored 56 points in the Wildcats’ final six games of 2017-18.
A different Brand(on) of basketball?
Brandon Williams was viewed as more of a scoring guard than a distributor when he arrived at Arizona, but you wouldn’t know that if you glanced at his stat line.
Through two games the freshman is averaging 11 points per game, shooting 6 for 20 from the field, 2 for 9 from 3 and 8 for 9 from the free-throw line.
That pales in comparison to his absurd 13-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“Game one (against Houston Baptist) was a very frenetic denying man-to-man team that really thrived on forcing turnovers. Tonight was a college matchup zone that Cal Poly’s been playing, they’re good at it and know what they’re doing,” Miller said. “And for him to have 13 assists and no turnovers, I think that’s a really good sign for him and our team.”
Williams became the first Arizona freshman since Aaron Gordon to have eight assists in a game and he’s the first Arizona freshman in at least 20 seasons to have eight assists with no turnovers.
As far as Williams’ scoring ability goes, Miller believes he will settle in.
“Some of his drives against bigger people haven’t gone down, but as he learns what that feels like, I think those drives will start going his way,” he said.
Perhaps a good omen for Arizona is both Williams and Brandon Randolph had low-scoring nights Sunday, combining for just 19 points, yet the team didn’t really miss a beat offensively, other than in the early goings.
It goes back to having quality depth.
“Any night any guy can have their go,” said Jeter, who posted 16 points, a career high. “It’s not about taking turns, but the effort level needs to be there every night and different guys are going to have their time.”
Luther full go
Luther’s time was Sunday, apparently. The fifth-year senior scored a team-high 17 points to go along with five rebounds. The Pittsburgh transfer was a cool 7 for 9 from the field and 3 for 5 from 3, scoring at all three levels.
“Ryan Luther is one of our team’s best shooters. He takes very good shots. Sometimes he’s unselfish to a fault, but tonight he played a very good game,” Miller said.
When Luther was asked if that type of performance can be expected of him, he was modest.
“Some nights my shots are going to fall more than others, but that’s not really what I’m concerned about,” Luther said. “Just take the right ones, but my teammates did a nice of finding me.”
Luther averaged a double-double in 10 games last year before suffering a season-ending foot injury, so him having a night like Sunday shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.
And when asked about that injury, Luther said it doesn’t restrict him.
“No, I’m good,” he said.
By the way, Arizona’s 3-point attempt percentage — the number of 3s per field-goal attempt — dipped to 35.4 after it only attempted 23 on Sunday, but that is still more than three percent higher than last year and almost 10 percent higher than 2014-15.
And by making nine of those 23 3s, Arizona was a tough cover for Cal Poly’s zone, especially when a capable shooter like Luther or Akot was playing the 5.
Life’s biggest mystery, solved
Chase Jeter rolls up his right pant leg during games. But if you thought it was for a super special reason, you will be disappointed.
“Everybody keeps asking me that,” he said. “I have no reason. I just do it. It’s my thing.”