For as good as the Arizona Wildcats have been during the second halves of games this season, outscoring opponents by 82 points over 10 contests so far, the first halves have been a completely different story.
But not the entire first 20 minutes, however. Arizona has led at the first TV timeout in seven of 10 games this season, allowing 6.9 points per each roughly four-minute segment.
“We’ve been great at the beginning of the game,” coach Sean Miller said Wednesday. “The first four minutes, really, in all 10 games. We’ve been a good starting team on the road. We’ve been a good starting team at home.”
After that, however, things have gotten ugly. Really ugly. And not surprisingly, this happens to coincide with when Arizona goes to the bench for the first time.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Wildcats’ last two games, at Alabama and against Utah Valley, when extended stretches of poor play midway through the first half forced Arizona to play catchup.
“From the 16-minute mark of the first half to like the 10-minute mark, eight-minute market of first half, we’ve just been destroyed the last two games,” Miller said. “I mean the point discrepancy is plus 20-some, maybe more. We’re looking at combinations that we have in the game at that time.”
Arizona was outscored 24-4 by Alabama between the first media timeout at the 15:35 mark of the first half and the third with 7:41 left before halftime. Against Utah Valley, the Wildcats led 15-9 at the first media break (15:25) but when play was stopped for commercials with 7:24 to go the Wolverines were up 27-22.
For those scoring at home, that’s a 42-11 edge for Arizona’s opponents.
“We just have not played well in those segments recently,” Miller said. “Sometimes that happens, it’s just maybe a two-game shot, but we’re well aware of being outscored in the first half and who’s in the game when that happens is the only concern.”
When Arizona returns to action on Saturday night against Baylor, keep a close eye on how it handles the second and third segments of the first half. In particularly, who is handling things on the court, since the five-man alignments during those stretches figure to be a big part of the problem.
An analysis of the substitutions Miller has made during the first half of the last two games points out a very notable trend: the starters don’t play much together.
Arizona’s starting five was on the court all at once for only 13:22 of the first halves against Utah Valley and Alabama, and 8:09 of that was at the outsets of those games. Against Utah Valley, that quintet didn’t see the floor together again after Miller subbed out Justin Coleman and Emmanuel Akot with 16:16 left.
Unlike last season, when Arizona’s starters hardly left the court, the five who begin the game aren’t just not playing much together, they’re not playing nearly as many minutes as a whole. Guard Brandon Williams’ 29.6 minutes per game is tops on the squad.
That’s meant the bench has played a much bigger role in the team’s performance, almost glaringly, as the non-starters are averaging 23.3 points per game in Arizona’s wins and 6.2 in its losses.
Yet the more reserves that are on the court for Arizona, the worse things have been, at least based on the last two first halves.
If at least four are on the court, which accounted for 17:49 worth of time, things were good. Once at least two backups were in action, though, the performance dipped drastically.
Those rough stretches midway through the first half against Alabama and Utah Valley? More often than not there were more non-starters on the court for Arizona than starters.
“We tend to sub like a wholesale sub at that time, two, three guys,” Miller said. “Sometimes not doing that at that point could be part of the solution and we’re working at that for sure. That starting group in the first four-minute segments of both halves have been good. I would even say in throughout the year it’s that 16- to 12-minute mark that we got our eye on.”