Breaking in five new starters and a bevy of new faces, Sean Miller said he plans to be more patient than usual this season as his team works out its kinks.
Perhaps Wednesday’s season-opener was a microcosm of what’s to come this year.
“We didn’t have a great deal of confidence, which is kind of who we are right now,” said Miller. “We’re a group of guys that are playing together for the first time. I think our hope is that as we continue to work in practice, go through experiences, we will improve.”
The Wildcats shot 38 percent in the first half with 11 turnovers and nine made field goals. Still, they led by nine, partly because of their defense and partly because Houston Baptist played like a team that went 6-25 last season.
The Huskies, who broke the rim during pregame warmups and delayed tipoff by 15 minutes, seemingly tried their best to shatter it in the game, posting a dismal .32/.24/.41 shooting line.
Meanwhile, Arizona was much more cohesive in the final 20 minutes, outscoring HBU 57-36. The Wildcats shot 59 percent in the second half, only committing two turnovers.
A corner 3 by Emmanuel Akot off a feed from Justin Coleman extended Arizona’s lead to 46-33 with 14 minutes to play, its largest advantage at the time. The Wildcats led by double figures the rest of the way and by as much as 32.
“I just felt we were a little bit nervous (early on),” said UA guard Brandon Randolph.
Randolph led the way for the Wildcats again, finishing with a career-high 25 points on an efficient 8-of-12 shooting. The sophomore averaged 19.5 PPG in UA’s two exhibitions and donned the gold jersey in practice this week, as he continues to emerge as the team’s go-to scorer.
Randolph said adding strength and having a more definitive role has aided his development.
“That’s always a good first step that he’s doing it every day, not just in an exhibition game,” Miller said. “He’s growing and sometimes that jump from a freshman to a sophomore is significant and Brandon’s always been able to shoot the ball. I think he is learning the game and he is more of a complete player. He is still going to keep getting better because it’s the beginning of his sophomore year, but definitely right now he’s been a bright spot on our team.”
Brandon Williams had 13 points on 2-of-11 shooting, but went 8 of 9 from the free-throw line and had a team-high five assists — as well as zero turnovers, which Miller happily noted.
“Playing in a game like that against that type of pressure, that’s a job well done,” Miller said. “He didn’t have his typical night. ... I’m sure he’ll bounce back Sunday.”
The Wildcats were 28 for 36 at the charity stripe, entering the bonus early in both halves. Miller said the solid free-throw shooting and avoidance of second-half turnovers were the highlights of the game.
“The one thing Houston Baptist tries to do is disrupt you, not allow you to pass the ball, and deny,” he said. “And in the second half as a team we did a much better job of making good decisions, finishing drives, and they fouled a lot, and in the second half we made our free throws.”
Chase Jeter, making his first start and first official appearance as a Wildcat, had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 20 minutes, as he works his way back from an undisclosed injury that forced him to miss an exhibition.
“Chase had some good moments,” Miller said. “The best is yet to come. I don’t think he’s scratched the surface. He hasn’t played a lot of basketball in college, and even this year he was really playing his best for a two, three-week period and then he got injured.
“I think right now the injury is finally leaving for him, and we’re all anxious for him to experience a good stretch of health, because one thing Jeter has done at every level he’s played is rebound.”
Miller commended Dylan Smith for his rebounding effort too — he grabbed nine boards — but said Houston Baptist’s 16 offensive rebounds were extremely concerning.
He hopes Ira Lee can help when he returns from his one-game suspension Sunday against Cal Poly.
“We got manhandled on the glass,” Miller said. “This year we have to rebound as a team. We don’t have that couple of bigs in there that are going to get those big rebounds for you. We need our guards to get in there. Our room for error when the other team misses, that’s a big difference.
“We have to block out and when guards don’t block out, you feel it. Even our bigs tonight we had opportunities and their big got it and put it back in, so that’s something we’ll take from this game and try to really work on and improve as we head into Sunday.”