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7 questions facing Arizona entering Pac-12 play

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arizona-basketball-brandon-williams-knee-injury-return-utah-colorado-devonaire-doutrive Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas has passed, which means it is time for the Arizona Wildcats to begin Pac-12 play. They are scheduled to host the Colorado on Jan. 3 to kick of their conference slate.

Before then, let’s take a look at some of the burning questions surrounding the Wildcats.

Can Arizona avoid bad losses?

Racking up four nonconference losses, Arizona (9-4) left itself little room for error heading into Pac-12 play, likely needing to win 13 or more conference games to reach the NCAA Tournament.

The reason that many wins is necessary is because not only does the Pac-12 lack top-tier teams (only ASU is ranked), it features several teams that are downright bad. Stanford, Cal, Utah and Washington State all place in the 100s in KenPom’s ratings. (For reference, the Big 12 and ACC only have two teams combined that rank that poorly.)

Usually, Arizona waltzes past those teams without any problems, but the Wildcats’ nail-biter against UC Davis showed they are capable of losing to anyone on any given night in any given venue this season. And if the Wildcats are going to earn an at-large NCAA bid, their resume has to be devoid of bad losses since it won’t have many quality wins.

Therefore, Arizona’s path to the NCAA Tournament (aside from winning the conference tourey) is to beat the bad Pac-12 teams and avoid being swept by ASU, Oregon, Washington and UCLA.

Usually, the key for a successful conference season is to sweep at home and split on the road. But dropping a game on, say, the Bay Area road trip this year could be extremely costly.

Will Brandon Williams start making shots?

Williams got off to such a sensational start with the Wildcats, but has quietly cratered since.

The freshman is Arizona’s third-leading scorer, at 11.1 PPG, but with shooting percentages that will made you shudder. He shooting just 34.4 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3.

The problem, and it is a big reason why Arizona ranks 103rd in the country on offense, is he is taking a lot of shots, sitting second on the team in field goal attempts.

Arizona either needs Williams to starting shooting better or take on a different role, perhaps as a distributor, an area of his game that has been better than expected.

Williams has posted a team-high 48 assists to just 20 turnovers.

Will Justin Coleman start taking more shots?

Coleman has been the polar opposite of Williams in that he is shooting a high percentage, but probably not taking enough shots. Coleman has a terrific .467/.419/.844 shooting line, but is fourth on the team in both field goal attempts and 3-point attempts.

Coleman averaged over 20 PPG in the Maui Invitational, but has only scored in double figures once since. The senior has fewer assists and a lower assist-to-turnover ratio than Williams, so it might make sense for the Wildcats to swap their roles, allowing Coleman to focus on his scoring and Williams to prioritize his passing.

Will Chase Jeter and Brandon Randolph stay consistent?

Jeter has anchored Arizona on both sides of the court, providing heady interior defense and the team’s lone post presence. The big man has scored in double figures in 10 of 13 games this season, exceeding the expectations many had for him when he transferred from Duke.

But will he keep it up against Pac-12 big men, who aren’t that great but are still better than most of the post players UA faced in non-conference?

Meanwhile, Randolph has scored in double figures every game this season, a pretty remarkable streak that could be challenging to continue knowing Pac-12 defenses will be keying in on him.

Can Arizona lean on its defense?

Before being dismantled by UC Davis, Arizona’s defense ranked 22nd in the country, its best mark since the 2014-15 season.

Knowing how inconsistent the offense is, it seems like the Wildcats are going to have to be a team that wins ugly, outlasting teams in low-scoring defensive battles. To do that, though, they will have to play with high effort all the time and rebound when they force misses. Both have surfaced as problems lately, the latter more so.

The Wildcats’ offense now ranks 39th in the country — a decent mark that is second-best in the conference — but if they can crack back into the Top 25, they will be a team that no one in the Pac-12 will look forward to playing.

Will the bench be productive?

It has been a struggle for Arizona to get consistent production out of its non-starters, so it would be a big help if at least one of the reserves broke out in the second half of the season.

Ira Lee capped off nonconference play with two solid games, so maybe it will be him. Or maybe it will be Dylan Smith, who is a jump shot away from being a quality 3-and-D wing.

Maybe Ryan Luther will look more like the guy who averaged a double-double at Pitt last season. Maybe Devonaire Doutrive will finally get regular playing time and make the most of it.

It doesn’t have to be scoring, either. Even just a consistent boost on the glass from Luther or Lee will be helpful.

Is Arizona’s shooting due for a progression to the mean?

The Wildcats are shooting 32.6 percent from 3, Miller’s worst 3-point shooting team ever, including his Xavier days. The weird part is this team was thought to be a pretty solid shooting team heading into the season.

However, only Coleman (.419) has hit 3s at a high percentage this year. Guys like Randolph (.339), Williams (.269) and Smith (.304) are all below where most people figured they would be, while Emmanuel Akot is struggling as well (.263).

Luther was having trouble with his shot too, but upped his percentage to .375 after sinking two triples against UC Davis, and perhaps others will follow suit. Even becoming an average 3-point shooting team (34 percent) would be a big development for this team.

One adjustment Arizona made recently is it is trying to rely less on 3s. The Wildcats only hoisted 12 against Montana and 18 against UC Davis, well below their season average of 22.

Maybe being more selective will help them be more efficient, but it didn’t in those games. Arizona was 2 for 12 against Montana and 6 for 18 against UC Davis.

Another thing to track: Arizona’s opponents also progressing to the mean. They are only shooting 28.3 percent from behind the arc against the Wildcats, more than five percent below the Division I average.

While you would like to credit Arizona’s defense for that, there is probably some luck involved as well — or maybe McKale is just a tough place to shoot.