The season is young and their opponents haven’t been the best, but the Arizona Wildcats have yet to show any glaring flaws.
They are shooting well at all three levels, sharing the ball, pushing the pace, locking down defensively, limiting turnovers, forcing takeaways, and rebounding at a good, though admittedly not great, rate.
Don’t believe me? Check the numbers:
If the Wildcats do have a problem, it’s that they have a lot of quality players but a finite number of minutes to go around.
With Devonaire Doutrive returning from suspension Thursday, 10 players received 14 or more minutes and 11 made at least one field goal in the win over San Jose State.
Digging deep into the bench hardly hindered Arizona’s performance. It won by 48, averaged almost 1.3 points per possession, and held the Spartans to 23 percent shooting.
The bench actually had a higher plus-minus than the starters.
“This is our team, we have a lot of guys that can play,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “That should allow us to be really good in the second halves of games, which has already shown up. It should make us a durable team throughout the long course of the season. On different nights we’re not just dependent on one or two guys, we can strike from a lot of different areas.”
The issue is Thursday’s rotation is not sustainable. Not against better teams when the starters will be asked to play more. The freshman trio of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji only averaged 22.7 minutes against San Jose State, about 10 fewer than they would normally play.
Not to mention Miller basically admitted earlier in the week that the rotation will be tightened when he said it’s “very difficult to play eight, nine, get into 10” players. Right now 11 are averaging 10.5 minutes or more.
That means someone deserving of playing time will eventually be phased out whether that be on a permanent or game-by-game basis, depending on the matchup.
Miller said the starting five is “pretty set” so we can infer it will be Doutrive, Max Hazzard, Stone Gettings, Ira Lee or Jemarl Baker Jr. in addition to Christian Koloko, who already picked up a DNP against Illinois.
Yet, all of them have made a compelling case to play. Fifth-year seniors Hazzard and Gettings offer shooting and experience in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively.
Baker, who was supposed to sit out this season, is best equipped to run the point when Mannion gets a breather, evidenced by his 12 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Lee has the highest defensive rebounding percentage on the team.
Doutrive, who had 12 points in 16 minutes Thursday, hasn’t been able to show much because of his suspension, but has been called the team’s most improved player and always plays with energy.
“It’s hard because you don’t ever want a player to not get into a rhythm because we’re subbing, so I think we’ll get that right,” Miller said. “We’re not perfect right now on who should be in with who and how that goes. But to give you a great example, Max Hazzard, you look at his plus-minus, he’s +38. He plays hard on defense, made a couple of big steals, did the same thing in the last game. He’s one of our team’s best shooters, plays the game with great energy. He might deserve a little bit more. He’s earning, and I think that’s where depth comes in. Because nobody can really rest on their laurels right now, everybody’s on edge to get that opportunity. That makes for a good atmosphere every day. We’ve had some really good practices and I fully expect that to continue.”
Miller called the rotation a puzzle, which is a good analogy. Led by Mannion, Green and Nnaji, Arizona has all the pieces it needs to compete for a Pac-12 championship and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but will only get there if they are utilized the right way, at the right time.
A good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
“The one team that our team this year reminds me a lot of is when Solomon Hill was a senior and we had Mark Lyons come in,” Miller said. “We had Solomon as a senior but we had a real good group of freshmen. That’s when Kaleb (Tarczewski) and Brandon Ashley and those guys were all freshmen. T.J. (McConnell) would have been sitting out but he was practicing every day. Our depth ended up winning out. We were in the Sweet 16, really close to the Elite Eight. Our depth was one of the signatures of that season. It’s up to us to make that the signature of this season as well.”