The Arizona Wildcats improved to 3-0 on Wednesday by routing the UTEP Miners, 79-46. UA will now head to Hawaii where it will begin the Maui Invitational on Monday against Iowa State.
Do we know anything yet?
Some strengths seem to be emerging for this Arizona team — its defense, depth and ability to take care of the ball, to name a few.
There are also some glaring weaknesses, like rebounding and, at times, shooting and scoring.
Then again, Arizona’s first three opponents were Houston Baptist, Cal Poly, and UTEP — all 291st or worse in the country, per KenPom.com — so can we even draw any conclusions for that or have any inkling as to what we can expect to see in Maui when they finally face some stiff competition?
Not really. Your guess is as good as Sean Miller’s.
“I mean you really don’t know until you’re there,” he said. “Sometimes it’ll bring out the best in a player and a team and sometimes it could really be a struggle. I mean, when you’re playing against great programs on a neutral court, a lot of eyes watching the games, that kind of pressure can take you to places that you don’t want to go, and that’s part of what I think all of us try to do in those tournaments is don’t beat yourself. Whatever you’re good at, make sure you show up.
“We’ve been really good at taking care of the ball and it’ll be interesting to see at the end of that tournament if that holds. If it does, that’s a great sign. We’re worried about our rebounding, it’ll be interesting to see if we have more confidence when that tournament ends in that area. But until you play the games, you don’t really know.”
They do play hard
Well, we do know one thing about this team: effort is not a problem, unlike last season when Miller constantly berated his team for not playing hard.
“We’re far from perfect, but I like our hustle,” he said. “And I think for us this year, that’s the direction we have to go and we’re gonna have to be an excellent defensive team. So we’re working very hard to get better in that area, and I think we’ve made some strides in the last couple of weeks.”
Arizona has held its opponents to a 39.8 effective field goal percentage this season, the 22nd-best mark in the country.
The Wildcats ranked 119th in that category last season, but again, they haven’t played anybody worthwhile yet to definitively say that their effort, while commendable, will translate into results against better teams.
And while the Maui Invitational will pit Arizona against stiffer competition, they are still November games.
“It’s going to be tough to judge us because it’s like last year in the Bahamas. I know it didn’t work out for us, but if we’d have played that same tournament in late February, it would have been a different story,” Miller said. “And we played without one of our best players, Rawle Alkins. There’ll be teams in his tournament that are missing players, maybe a team that doesn’t play well, but we’re gonna learn a lot and grow a lot and hopefully we can leave with a couple wins.”
Randolph’s all-around game
Brandon Randolph was mostly a spot-up shooter as a freshman, but he is quickly changing that narrative this season.
Of the 56 points he’s scored through three games, only nine (20 percent) have come from the 3-point line. To compare, 45 of the 116 points (39 percent) he scored last season came from behind the arc.
“He’s way better than just a good shooter,” Miller said. “He’s a scorer. Excellent free throw shooter, in transition, off the dribble, he’s improved immensely over the last year and a half. And then obviously he can make 3s, but if you look at our two exhibition games and then our three games we’ve played, he’s been our most consistent scorer through five games.”
Entering Wednesday’s game, Randolph was 6 for 6 at the rim, where he only shot 50 percent last season.
“I mean, I just think that comes with getting stronger from last year,” he said. “Everyone knows I can shoot, so I’m just trying to show people that I can do other things.”
Arizona has been hit or miss from the 3-point line this season, and Wednesday was definitely an off night. The Wildcats shot 4 for 16 and 2 for 13 if you don’t count Brandon Williams’ total.
Miller lamented that Ryan Luther, who Miller says can be unselfish to a fault, only took two shots.
“We have to take good 3s. It’s not equal opportunity,” he said. “That really hurt us last year in the Bahamas. We went down there and it was a number of guys taking shots that they didn’t understand the time, score, or circumstance. We have to take a great 3-point shots and if they don’t present themselves, then we can’t take them just to take them. I think that’s No. 1. And I think just confidence. Dylan (Smith)’s a guy that sometimes his confidence can waver. You saw Brandon Williams, he didn’t shoot the ball really well the first two games, but tonight he did. And Ryan Luther only took two shots, both from 3, we can’t let that happen. We have to find ways to get him shots because he’s one of our best 3-point shooters, so I think what you see there is a work in progress.”
Miller’s 250th win
Wednesday’s win was the 250th of Miller’s Arizona career. He didn’t think much of it.
“I probably got about 300 left to even come close to (Lute Olson),” he joked. “So the bar’s pretty high there.”
Miller turns 50 on Saturday while Arizona will be in Maui, so his birthday was celebrated in McKale on Wednesday.
Several former UA players — like T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, and Deandre Ayton — wished their former coach a happy birthday on the video board. Miller thought it was awkward.
“It kind of caught me off guard because one, it isn’t my birthday,” he said. “And two, it was in the middle of the game, so I wasn’t sure what to do, really. But I appreciate everybody acknowledging and when you turn 50, I think that number means more than maybe the other 49.”
Williams did make one mistake
Brandon Williams did a lot of good things Wednesday— he scored a career-high 21 points and still has not turned the ball over this season, which you can read about in our recap — but he did have one gaffe.
Here you go:
Brandon Williams when asked how Arizona’s backcourt has gelled through the first three games: “What does gelled mean?”— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) November 15, 2018
Luckily, Brandon Randolph was there to save his teammate: “I got you.” pic.twitter.com/SGP1ThDGnq
Miller explains new Film Room series
Arizona has launched a new series this season called “Film Room” in which Miller sits down with one UA player to, well, break down film. It is as simple as it sounds.
Here is the latest one with Emmanuel Akot, whose defense was praised Wednesday:
Miller explained the reasoning behind the new series:
“That’s really easy for me to do because that’s really what we do every day. Sometimes you guys may not see that, but it’s what we do and I think it’s really good for our players as well because you get a chance to know them,” he said.
“So I think it accomplishes a lot of different things and mostly I’m trying with that to reward our fans, to allow them to really know the most they can about our team and what we’re doing, whether it’s good or bad terms coming off a loss. But I think that’s something that we’re gonna that we’re gonna do all year.”