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6 questions heading into Arizona basketball season

Connecticut v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When you lose your entire starting five, you are going to have a lot of question marks entering a season.

The Arizona Wildcats are no exception, and while there are countless numbers of questions they have to answer, I tried my best to narrow it down to six.

Here we go.

1. How will point guard minutes be divvied up?

Arizona has an interesting mix at point guard this season. It has a scoring guard in freshman Brandon Williams, a pass-first point guard in grad transfer Justin Coleman and then sophomore Alex Barcello, who was mostly a spot-up shooter last year.

While they have complementary skill-sets, there probably aren’t enough minutes for all three players to have a significant role, unless Williams or Barcello spend most (if not all) of their time at the 2.

Arizona handled the point guard position curiously the past three seasons. In 2017-18, Parker Jackson-Cartwright ate up 84 percent of the minutes, but in 2016-17 he played 66 percent with Kadeem Allen playing 32 percent. In 2015-16, Allen and PJC both played the point about half the time (these numbers via KenPom).

Arizona finished 15th, 15th and 20th in offensive efficiency those three seasons, respectively, so one method was clearly not more effective than the other, though obviously there were other variables in play.

So...what is the breakdown going to look like this year? Will Coleman and Williams split 50-50? Will Williams be more of an off-guard and only play one-third of his minutes at point? Or maybe Williams will exclusively be a 2 and Coleman and Barcello will split point guard duties?

Miller did say Arizona plans to be more guard-oriented this season, so while Williams is somewhat undersized at the 2, it wouldn’t be outlandish to think he could start there and only play the point when there is foul trouble. Plus, you never know how capable a freshman is of running a college offense until he has to do it. We saw Barcello struggle with that last season once Arizona faced stiffer competition.

And if Barcello takes a big leap forward as a sophomore, Miller might be more comfortable with him backing up Coleman, who seems like a shoe-in to be the starter to begin the season.

My prediction: Coleman plays the point 65 percent of the time, Williams gets the rest (mostly playing the 2 instead), and Barcello sees time here and there at both positions depending on the matchup.

2. Who’s going to rebound?

The Wildcats were No. 2 in defensive rebounding percentage and No. 1 in offensive rebounding percentage in the Pac-12 last season. Nationally, they ranked seventh in total rebounding percentage (55.6%). That helped them overcome a shoddy defense.

But by losing their entire starting five and Keanu Pinder, they are losing 1,008 of the 1,277 rebounds they collected last season — or about 78%.

Who is going to step up and fill that void? Chase Jeter, Ira Lee and Ryan Luther are the obvious candidates.

But the Wildcats’ wings need to do a better job too, especially if they plan to play more small-ball.

Emmanuel Akot only had a 6.6 TRB% last season, lower than guards Alex Barcello and Dylan Smith, who hovered around 6.5%. Brandon Randolph statistically was the worst rebounder on the team, with a 4.5 TRB%.

Those percentages won’t be acceptable this year since Deandre Ayton won’t be around to control the glass. Arizona will need more of a team effort.

3. How much better will the defense be?

Arizona allowed 102.9 points per 100 possessions last season, its worst mark ever under Sean Miller. Therefore, improving defensively should be the No. 1 priority.

Personnel was Arizona’s biggest issue last season, starting two ill-fitting 7-footers with three guards who struggled to defend on the perimeter. In that sense, it’s a good thing Arizona is starting from scratch.

And the revamped roster looks like one that can have success defensively. There is a rim-protector in Chase Jeter, two small-ball fours in Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee that have the tools to be good defenders, and then a bunch of athletic wings and guards who might not be polished on that end, but at least have a chance to be solid, like Brandon Randolph, Devonaire Doutrive, Brandon Williams and Omar Thielemans.

It’s hard to imagine the Wildcats won’t be better defensively, but how much they improve is the real question. Finishing 83rd in the country in defensive efficiency is bad, but finishing 50th might not be good enough either, since this team has a lot to prove offensively.

And, again, we know Miller isn’t likely to deviate from his pack-line schemes, so any improvement is going to come down to the team’s personnel, not a tactical adjustment.

4. Who is going to score?

Arizona is losing 85 percent of its scoring from last season, and its returning leading scorer (Dylan Smith) averaged 4.3 points per game, so it is going to be fascinating to see who the team leans on the put the ball in the basket.

Will one of the returners like Smith or Brandon Randolph carry that load? Will freshmen like Brandon Williams and Devonaire Doutrive do it? What about the grad transfers?

If I had to guess, I’d say Williams and Randolph will be the leading scorers, with Luther and Coleman averaging close to double-figures as well.

It will also be interesting to see if Arizona picks up the pace and/or increases the amount of 3-pointers it takes this season, which both seem like plausible scenarios given the amount of wings and guards on the roster and the lack of a proven interior scorer.

Contrary to popular narratives, Arizona has been consistently good on offense in recent years, finishing Top 20 in offensive efficiency in each of the past six seasons. Can this team muster enough offense to reach that mark?

5. Will the transfers produce?

A momentous part of the offseason was landing grad transfers Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman, who provide much-needed experience to an otherwise young roster.

But neither can be considered proven talents. Luther, a 6-9 forward, averaged 5.2 points per game in his career at Pitt. And even though he averaged a double-double last season, he only played 10 games because of injury, most of which were against mid-major teams. Not to mention Pitt was awful and somebody had to put up numbers.

Coleman, a 5-10 point guard, averaged 13.6 points and 6.6 assists per game with good efficiency at Samford last season, but that was in the Southern Conference. Plus, it was the first time in his career that he had respectable shooting percentages. He struggled when he played at Alabama in his first two years of college.

But if Luther and Coleman can come close to their 2017-18 numbers — which does seem feasible — the Wildcats will be in great shape and maybe even a Pac-12 title contender depending how much the returners improve.

If they cannot, Arizona’s roster looks a lot more flawed with major question marks at virtually every position.

Same goes for Duke transfer Chase Jeter, who is as important as anybody on the roster. He is Arizona’s lone rim-protector and could be the interior presence the team has sorely needed defensively since Kaleb Tarczewski graduated.

If Jeter is ineffective, Arizona would likely have to play small ball a lot which ... might actually might be a good thing?

6. Will the non-Williams freshmen make an impact?

Barring something unexpected, Brandon Williams will be an impact player this year. As I said above, I think there is even a strong chance he winds up being the leading scorer. Miller said Williams would have been a McDonald’s All-American if he did not miss his junior season with knee surgery, so let’s take his word for it.

But what about fellow four-star recruits Omar Thielemans and Devonaire Doutrive? Thielemans is not seen as someone who will light it up from day one — Miller said as much in May — but you never really know, either.

I always think back to Derrick Williams, who was not a heralded recruit, but was dominant from the moment he arrived in Tucson. Obviously he is the exception to the rule, but it would be unwise to assume Thielemans won’t contribute this season. His shooting stroke does look pretty good and he seems to have the body type and athleticism that would allow him to do some good things defensively.

Doutrive has a legitimate chance to play big minutes on the wing if he truly has the all-around game Miller said he does. But he could just as easily get buried behind Dylan Smith, Brandon Randolph, Brandon Williams and/or Alex Barcello, since Miller isn’t one to have expansive rotations.