The holiday break can’t come soon enough for the Arizona Wildcats.
What should have been a walkover, at least on paper, against lowly UC Davis instead turned into a nail-biter that saw Arizona trail three times in the final five minutes. In the end, the 70-68 victory over the 3-8 Aggies left us with even more questions about this team than we had going into the final non-conference game on the schedule.
But at least one question—is Arizona any good?—appears to have been answered.
It would be one thing if this performance was an isolated incident. But it comes a week after the atrocious 58-49 home loss to Baylor (who then proceeded to lose at home to Stephen F. Austin) and a few days removed from a stinker of an effort against Montana.
There’s a reason Arizona (9-4) was picked to finish fourth in what’s looking like it’ll be a really bad Pac-12, and why coach Sean Miller was surprised the Wildcats were that high in the projections.
Saturday’s narrow win serves as the unofficial midway point of Arizona’s season. The Wildcats don’t play again until Jan. 3 when they open conference play against Colorado at home, and how they address their many deficiencies during that 12-day break will ultimately determine how the year plays out.
For now, though, he’s what we’ve learned about what is shaping up to be Sean Miller’s worst team since 2011-12.
Justin Coleman and Brandon Williams should switch roles
Remember when Coleman was an unstoppable scoring machine at the Maui Invitational, scoring 62 points on 20-of-35 shooting in three games? Yeah, those were good times.
In Arizona’s other 10 games, Coleman has scored 69 points and taken only 57 shots. His game-winning three with a minute left was his only make of the game, and it came on just his second attempt.
Yes, Coleman had foul problems that limited him to 25 minutes, his fewest since the second game of the season, but when he was on the court and the ball was in his hands he wasn’t doing enough with it. That has to change.
It would be one thing if the senior point guard was constantly creating for others, but that hasn’t been the case. He’s got 42 assists in 13 games, which is six fewer than Williams—who has 48, while taking the second-most shots on the team—and his 3.2 assists per game are less than half the 6.6 average he had last season at Samford.
There’s an easy solution here, if Miller is willing to make the change: flip Coleman and Williams’ lineup spots. With Williams being the primary ball handler that frees Coleman to do more off the ball (while being a strong second facilitator) and it could also cut down on some of Williams’ ill-advised shots. The freshman is averaging 11 points per game but he’s needing nearly 10 shots to get that output.
And in reality, this change wouldn’t actually be that drastic since that pair isn’t on the court together nearly as much as you’d think. Quite often, when Coleman is out, Williams moves to the 1 and that’s when he’s far less likely to jack up bad shots.
Chase Jeter has to avoid foul trouble
As its lone big man, Jeter is undoubtedly Arizona’s most valuable player. And most consistent player. And most indispensable player.
Shall I go on?
Jeter had a team-high 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting against UC Davis, adding five rebounds and an assist (just his fifth of the season). He’s averaging 20.3 points per 40 minutes, second only to leading scorer Brandon Randolph’s 22.6 per 40.
But the 6-foot-11 junior is only playing 25.4 minutes per game, fourth-most on the team. Yet in a tight game on Saturday he played only 28 minutes, foul trouble causing him to sit for a 6:27 stretch midway through the second half.
Arizona took only seven shots in that span, its already struggling offense without a reliable weapon to utilize.
It’s the third time in the last four games that Jeter has had four fouls, the others being the losses to Alabama and Baylor. He fouled out early against Gonzaga—and we know what happened after that—and also had foul trouble in the loss to Auburn.
There aren’t likely to be many laughers for Arizona in Pac-12 play, which means it needs Jeter on the court as much as possible.
This team’s margin for error is nonexistent
After winning 87 times at McKale in a 90-game span since the start of the 2013-14 season, Arizona nearly dropped two out of three at home. That’s not a fluke, that’s an indicator.
It means that every game from here on out is going to be no better than a coin flip for the Wildcats. Yes, even when Cal and Washington State come here.
When everything goes right, Arizona is probably capable of beating everyone in the Pac-12 other than a fully healthy Oregon. But how often is that going to be the case for the Wildcats, based on what we’ve seen to this point?