As Arizona enters a 2020-21 season that Sean Miller predicts might be the most competitive Pac-12 slate in his tenure in Tucson, it’s impossible to ignore the Wildcats’ glaring weakness: returning experience.
Last month our friends at UW Dawg Pound noted that eight of the league’s teams return more than 50% of their points from a year ago and 10 teams return at least 45% of minutes played.
Arizona ranks last in both categories, bringing back just 14.4% of points and 19.7% of minutes. The Wildcats are also at the bottom of the conference in returning rebounds (20.2%) and assists (19.7%).
Six Wildcats enter the fall with college experience but only one of those players, Ira Lee, has played multiple seasons for UA.
Those numbers provide empirical support to an otherwise obvious conclusion, which is that Arizona’s 10 newcomers have a lot of ground to make up to compete among the upper crust of the league.
“It might be the least experienced team that I’ve ever coached,” Miller said, “and we’re trying to keep that in mind as we practice and as we teach our guys to be patient, to make sure that we don’t move at too fast of a pace.”
If this was a normal year, Arizona would be playing catch-up against the rest of the conference. The COVID-19 pandemic that put an abrupt end to the 2019-20 season leaves Arizona in an even more onerous position.
After Arizona played its last game against Washington in the Pac-12 Tournament, several returning players headed home to residences that lacked basketball or weight and conditioning equipment. Six of the seven incoming freshmen spent the first months of the pandemic quarantined internationally in their home countries.
The spring and summer months, which are often when younger college players make their biggest strides both physically and on-the-court, turned into a prolonged holding pattern.
“We had no strength and conditioning workouts, we had no basketball workouts, in essence, from April, May, June, July all the way towards the end of August and that’s when this year’s team first arrived,” Miller said.
Arizona didn’t begin indoor basketball drills until September and even then it was in a small group, socially distanced format. Miller said that the team accessed its locker room for the first time earlier this week.
The coaching staff is relying on returners and experienced transfers to provide continuity while also working those guys back to their pre-pandemic selves.
Of the returners, Koloko and James Akinjo may have lost the most ground by not being able to participate with their teammates this spring and summer. Koloko ended the ‘19-20 season with improved confidence and a growing stature, only to see that progress stifled by the pandemic.
Until we see Koloko up close, we won’t have much of an idea where he stands in comparison to his play in February or March. However, it’s fair to say that Koloko, who started playing basketball at age 15, had the most to lose by missing out on four months of training and conditioning.
Akinjo, on the other hand, already has proven he’s got the chops to be an elite player at his position but until this fall never had the chance to run Miller’s system as a de-facto starter at point guard.
“He brings a lot of leadership qualities, he brings a toughness to our team,” Miller said. “Obviously that position the guard position in college basketball is incredibly important and I feel really good about who James is.”
Akinjo joins former Nevada transfer Jordan Brown as the two returners without any on-court experience in an Arizona uniform. Miller expressed confidence that Brown especially will serve a veteran role despite this being his first season actually playing for the Wildcats.
“Not only was he working behind the scenes physically and on his game but being able to practice and compete against the front court like that… I think that year of development has served him well,” Miller said. “Jordan is one of the most experienced players on our team and I think he’s going to be a very productive player.”
Miller indicated that the staff has made a concerted effort to bring in experienced transfers including Kentucky’s Jemarl Baker Jr., who faces higher expectations this year.
“That’s one way to get older, that’s one way to get experienced and you find that with Jordan Brown, James Akinjo and Jemarl Baker,” Miller said. “That’s three examples of players that are very good, that have experience under their belt, that are older and they give us that coveted experience.”
For Arizona to compete among the top half of the Pac-12 this year, the half dozen Wildcats with college experience will need to be ready to go from the jump.
“We’re unfortunately at the wrong end of (experience) which won’t help us,” Miller said. “I do believe in the Pac-12 we’re going to have a great conference, a competitive conference from top to bottom. And playing 20 games, it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be very, very challenging.”