As the Arizona Wildcats filed into their locker room at halftime of Sunday’s win vs. Long Beach State, head coach Sean Miller pulled Max Hazzard to the side and offered some words of encouragement.
Shoot the ball. Play with confidence. Be who you are.
“He just didn’t look right in the first half,” Miller said. “I don’t want to say he lost confidence as much as I think he just he wanted to play well so badly that it can work against you.”
Hazzard responded to Miller’s pep talk with the best half of his UA career, dropping 14 points including a quartet of 3-pointers—his speciality.
“He’s among the best shooters that I have seen,” Miller said. “And you saw him get going in the second half. He has that punch element. He really can give us that scoring lift off the bench.”
A lift that Arizona needs more now that sophomore guard Devonaire Doutrive is no longer with the program. Perhaps that explains why Hazzard was so skittish to begin Sunday’s game. He knew he had something to prove, minutes to earn.
“Obviously it changes (the rotation) a little bit,” Hazzard said of Doutrive’s dismissal. “But Coach always preaches whether somebody is injured or somebody is out, it’s next-man-up mentality.”
Hazzard was a prolific marksman at UC Irvine, where he shot 39 percent from 3 last season and carried the Anteaters to a Big West tournament championship, but it has taken him some time to gel with the Wildcats.
Prior to Sunday’s outburst, Hazzard was only 4 for 15 from behind the arc.
A diminished role might have had something to do with the slow start. Hazzard went scoreless in 10 minutes Thursday vs. South Dakota State—Doutrive’s last game with the team—before receiving 18 minutes Sunday, closer to the 26.4 he averaged at UCI.
“I haven’t been shooting the ball as well as I wanted to this far this year, but small sample size, long season, and I like my chances,” Hazzard said.
Equally impressive Sunday was Jemarl Baker Jr., another sweet-shooting wing who will need to step up in Doutrive’s stead.
Unlike Hazzard, Baker has been red-hot out of the gate. The Kentucky transfer had 11 points and seven assists in a season-high 20 minutes Sunday. He went 3 for 3 from distance and is now shooting 11 for 20 from 3 for the season.
Another gaudy stat? The 22 to 2 assist-to-turnover ratio Baker has posted as the team’s No. 2 playmaker behind Nico Mannion. It’s almost unsettling to think where the Wildcats would be had he not been granted immediate eligibility.
“He’s done a really good job. His assist-to-turnover ratio is just off the charts,” Miller said. “Matter of fact, he had a turnover tonight and it was just crazy. I looked out there thinking I think that’s only his second turnover of the season. It’s hard to get mad at a guy who’s taking care of the ball as well as he has, and that’s one of Jemarl’s strengths as a player.”
Baker and Hazzard combining for 25 points on an efficient 12 shots showed Arizona has the firepower to compensate for Doutrive’s dismissal, but they won’t have to do it alone.
The other star in the backcourt Sunday was Mannion, who had 22 points, eight assists, and a trio of triples. Miller thought it was his best game as a Wildcat.
“I think everybody’s going to get a little bit more of an opportunity,” Miller said. “We still have five guards. We’re rotating for three spots. And Stone Gettings is more than capable of playing some spot minutes at small forward, especially against certain teams.”
So maybe this new nine-man rotation is better anyway.
“It’s hard to sub in and out of games,” Miller said. “Depth sounds good on the front end, but everybody has to sacrifice a little bit, playing nine or 10 players. I think in some ways, that’s what happened tonight. You can really hit your stride maybe in the second half of games and at times wear a team down. You can play through foul trouble. I think we have a deep team and we just have to continue to grow.”