The Arizona Wildcats entered the third weekend of the Pac-12 season alone in first place. They end it a half-game out of the top spot, trailing unbeaten Washington after a home split with the Oregon schools.
It began bad, with Thursday’s ugly 59-54 home loss to the Oregon Ducks, then finished strong with Saturday’s 82-71 victory over the Oregon State Beavers to avoid the Wildcats’ first Pac-12 home sweep since 2008.
Arizona now heads out on its toughest remaining stretch, a three-game road trip that begins Thursday at UCLA and ends Jan. 31 at ASU. A strong showing away from home, where the Wildcats are 52-31 in Pac-12 play under coach Sean Miller, and they will be in really good shape for the second half.
Before getting too far ahead, though, let’s look back and this past pair of games and note what stood out the most.
Shot selection matters
Arizona followed up one of its worst three-point shooting performances of the season, going 6 of 22 against Oregon, by making a season-high 13 triples (on 27 shots) against Oregon State. Just a fluke?
Not if you noticed what happened before most of those three-point tries.
All but one of Arizona’s threes were assisted, and several of the missed ones came off crisp passes either off dribble penetration or swinging it around the perimeter to the open man. Against Oregon, when the Wildcats had only nine assists on 19 makes, only three of those six threes were assisted.
Among the many things Miller said after that game was that Arizona had five “horrible” three-point tries in the first half that shouldn’t have been taken and basically counted like turnovers.
The three-point shot has been a much bigger part of Arizona’s offense this season, the 21.1 attempts per game and 36.4 percent attempt rate both up significantly from last year and on pace to be among the highest of the Miller era. Those averages are down to 19.3 and 33.1 percent, respectively, in Pac-12 play, a sign that Arizona is trying to be more selective with those lower-percentage shots.
Making sure they attempts come off good passes as much as possible can only help.
Everyone needs a role
Arizona has basically played all season with four starters, the fifth starting spot more like a seat filler since you’re required to begin the game with five guys on the court.
Ryan Luther opened the season at the 4, then Emmanuel Akot took over after Maui an held that spot until deciding to quit the team last weekend. Luther regained his job, apparently by default, because after a horrible performance against Oregon he was replaced by Dylan Smith.
Smith responded with 13 points and six rebounds in 35 minutes, his most in two seasons with Arizona. And Luther, returning to the reserve gig that he handled quite well, had 16 points and 11 rebounds for his first double-double with the Wildcats.
With Chase Jeter getting hurt less than five minutes in and not returning, Luther’s play was critical for Arizona. And it furthered the case that his best role is that of someone who comes off the bench to spell other frontcourt players or give the Wildcats more size when that’s needed.
At this point in the season, each of Arizona’s non-starters should have a specific role and that’s his. For Smith it’s the do-everything guy, a strong defender and great rebounder who can have a greater impact by starting.
Ira Lee is the goon, Devonaire Doutrive is instant energy and Alex Barcello … well, if Saturday was any indication, he’s someone who can be an issue for opponents if he’s willing to penetrate rather than just spot up on the perimeter.
Balanced scoring is a must
Arizona had four players average double figures last season, but most of the time it felt like Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier were the only ones scoring. And if one (or both) was struggling, if others didn’t step up then bad things happened.
It was a huge question mark who would step up to be the alphas on offense this season, yet early on the Brandons—Randolph and Williams—showed they were equally willing to be that guy. Randolph has remained the team’s leading scorer, but he’s massively cooled off of late and Arizona desperately needs others to help fill the void.
Randolph needed 15 shots to score 10 points against Oregon State, this after going 2 for 9 against Oregon for a season-low five points. In six Pac-12 games, the sophomore is shooting 34.7 percent (compared to 45.7 percent in nonconference play).
He’s hopefully going to come out of that slump eventually, but in the meantime others need to take more shots to ensure he’s not trying to shoot his way out with volume.
We’re looking at you, B-Will and Justin Coleman.
Williams had 20 points on 5-of-10 shooting against OSU, his first time attempting more than eight shots since the Pac-12 opener (when he was 6 of 17). And Coleman, who took only 28 shots in the first five conference games also went 5 of 10 against the Beavers for 14 points. Eight of those shots came in the second half, and that willingness to shoot needs to continue.