All the signs were there. This was going to be a bad season for the Arizona Wildcats, certainly in comparison to most other ones over the past 35 years.
But now that it’s over, following Wednesday’s 78-65 loss to USC in the first round—the first game—of the Pac-12 tournament, the actual season results seem far worse than anyone could have expected.
Sure, Arizona had to replace all five starters from last year’s team including a trio of guys who have played in the NBA. Yes, the talent level was going to be much lower than at any point in the Sean Miller era, as was the amount of incoming experience, but the dropoff from one year to the next couldn’t be that drastic, could it?
Ron Howard narrator voice: It could.
The wounds are still fresh from this 17-15 team, but rather than let them scab over let’s pour some antiseptic on them and really feel the pain from arguably Arizona’s worst since since 1982-83:
Brandon Randolph wasn’t built to be Arizona’s go-to player
With a career-high 25 points against Houston Baptist on Nov. 7, Randolph established himself as the early alpha dog for Arizona. This was a very pleasant development considering that no returning player averaged more than 4.3 points per game in 2017-18.
Randolph continued to be Arizona’s most prolific scorer the remainder of the season, but it’s fair to say he peaked far too early. He had 21 in an overtime win over Utah on the first weekend of Pac-12 play, but needed 19 shots to do so, and after scoring 17 (on 4-of-15 shooting) at Stanford in the next game he only reached the 15-point mark twice more.
His final average, after scoring just two points in 16 minutes off the bench in the finale against USC: 12.4 per game. That’s the lowest by Arizona’s top producer in 74 seasons.
Randolph ended up shooting 38.4 percent, and against Pac-12 competition that rate dipped to 32.7 percent. As bad as those numbers were, they wouldn’t have been as glaring if the sophomore guard had other facets to his game besides scoring. But he averaged just 3.3 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game, his two dimes against USC marking just the seventh time in 32 games he assisted on two or more makes by teammates.
The grad transfers didn’t help as much as they needed to
The opinions vary greatly when it comes to graduate transfers and how teams go about utilizing them. For Arizona this season, it was imperative that point guard Justin Coleman and Ryan Luther have a significant impact if the Wildcats had any chance of success.
Miller regularly acknowledged how important Coleman and Luther were to this team, saying prior to the regular-season finale that he didn’t think Arizona would have won 10 games without them.
But how much did they help, really?
Luther, who had 16 points in his final college game, averaged 8.4 points and 4.3 rebounds. He shot 37.5 percent from three-point range, tops among Arizona’s most-used players, but he didn’t provide anything close to the inside presence needed from a 6-foot-9 forward.
Coleman, who had five points and three assists to end his career, averaged 8.9 points and a team-best 3.8 assists. His floor leadership was priceless but that didn’t always translate into production.
Each definitely helped fill the gaps for Arizona, but might that have been at the cost of younger players who could have benefitted from more time to develop on the court? Ira Lee managed to still find his role despite Luther, but Alex Barcello ended up averaging the same number of minutes as he did as a freshman.
Dylan Smith never met a shot he didn’t like
The only thing Smith did more this season than fire up shots was dribble before those shots. And he wasn’t good at either of them.
Smith, who had nine points against USC on 3-of-12 shooting (including 1 of 7 from three), just completed one of the least efficient seasons in program history. No, really.
His final numbers: 7.2 points per game on 34.1 percent shooting. He logged 783 minutes, the 44th player in the Miller era to get that much court time but only the eighth to shoot under 40 percent (including teammates Coleman and Randolph).
Smith’s field goal percentage was dead last on that list. In fact, dating back to 1992-93 the Wildcats have had only eight other players who appeared in at least 75 percent of games and shot worse.
Chase Jeter lacks offensive skills
A former 5-star signee for Duke, Jeter could never carve out a role during his two seasons at his first school, and with that program routinely bringing in top-tier prospects it was very smart of him to look elsewhere. And Arizona proved to be a great fit, particularly since it was going to have plenty of minutes available for a talented frontcourt player who was willing to do the dirty work.
And by and large, Jeter’s first season playing in Tucson was a good one. Had he not dealt with injuries, first to his back and then to his knee, it might have been even better.
But even before getting banged up it was pretty evident that Jeter’s best attributes didn’t involve scoring. So it goes when you’re 6-foot-10 but don’t have the bulk to bang around inside and don’t have the range to shoot from outside of 10 feet.
The injuries likely contributed to this, but at the end of the season Jeter’s post moves became so predictable that it almost made sense for teams to allow him to get the ball down low.
Chase Jeter takes so long to gather, pivot and go up in the paint that defenders have time to make a ham sandwich and still keep him from scoring— Brian Pedersen (@realBJP) March 13, 2019
Jeter was 2 for 9 from the field against USC, finishing the season with a 57.4 percent shooting rate. That’s good, but consider that entering Pac-12 play he was shooting 65.7 percent and failed to make at least half his shots just once in 13 games. That happened nine times from January through March.