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Arizona still facing plenty of unknowns as season opener nears

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 04 Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What will the Arizona Wildcats look like when they open the season against NAU on Wednesday? Less than week a till tip-off, Sean Miller still doesn’t have a good answer for you.

“I think with the 10 new faces, seven freshmen, COVID and everything we’ve gone through, we’re gonna show up ready to compete,” the UA coach said Friday. “But clearly I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The pandemic prevented his reshuffled roster from scrimmaging other teams and from holding its typical Red-Blue scrimmage in McKale Center, which Miller said “allow you to be more confident and the most ready for the beginning of the season.”

The Wildcats didn’t even get access to their locker room until a few weeks ago. But after 30-plus practices, it’s time to find out what, if anything, the players have learned this fall.

“You throw in the fact there’s no fans, we’re all going to be wearing masks, I would just say we’re going to do the best that we can,” Miller said. “We’ve worked really hard to be ready. We don’t have the luxury of great returning experience. So if there would ever be a year that I think you could benefit by having a group of guys that have been through the battles of the Pac-12, that are older and experienced, this would be the year.”

Arizona fans won’t be surprised to hear that the Wildcats spent the majority of the preseason perfecting their man-to-man defense. That’s because, with so many new players, Miller said their starting point is “at home plate.”

“We don’t want to be vulnerable early in the year because we haven’t covered things thoroughly,” he said.

Offensively, Miller expects the Wildcats to keep it simple—push the ball and take the first good shot. They are expected to start a three-guard lineup, the specifics of which are unclear. Miller said seven players are in the mix to crack the starting five and there isn’t much separation between them.

“Shot selection is a big reason why you win or lose, and shot selection also impacts your defense,” Miller said. “So whether we shoot a shot at the four seconds or we shoot a shot towards the end of the clock, we want to be efficient, we want to create good opportunities for our team.”

Wednesday’s opener is the start of a five-day, three-game stretch that will also see Arizona host Grambling State and UTEP on Friday and Sunday, respectively.

None of Arizona’s non-conference opponents are expected to be any good—why Miller thinks it’s a good opportunity to iron out some kinks—but they will have the element of surprise.

“I don’t know anything about any of the programs,” he said. “They haven’t played. We haven’t really gone that route right now. We know a little bit more about NAU simply because we played them a year ago. Obviously, Coach (Jack) Murphy was there as their coach, we have a relationship with Shane (Burcar) and their basketball program. They’re in our state and they’re first up. But I don’t know anything right now about any of the programs beyond that. I hope to learn more as we approach them. We’re going to be the most ready we can.”

Arizona already knows it won’t be at full strength, as freshman center Daniel Batcho (knee) and senior forward Ira Lee (concussion) are both nursing injuries—the former possibly being a season-ender.

That’s the bad news. The good news is they have managed to avoid any coronavirus cases.

Miller praised UA’s leadership, daily testing protocols and safety measures for providing a good foundation to manage the pandemic—and his players for taking them seriously. Other programs haven’t been as fortunate including Pac-12 rival Utah, which paused its program’s activities on Friday, and Washington State, which recently saw head coach Kyle Smith test positive.

Arizona’s reward is a chance to finally play a real game. While Miller is looking forward to returning to the coaching box after such a long, arduous offseason, he’ll wait until tip-off before getting too excited.

“We’ve taken it as serious as we can, and so far so good, but as you know that can change quickly,” he said. “There’s a randomness to that, that even with us doing everything the best we can, we could miss games, because our team gets it, whoever gets it. So we’re aware of that. Our three rules are lead yourself, protect our basketball program and team, and no excuses. Let’s try to do the best that we can and that’s what we try to do every day.”