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Uncertain leadership contributing to Arizona’s up-and-down play

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arizona-wildcats-basketball-leadership-freshmen-veterans-mannion-green-nnaji-2020-pac-12-miller Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Who is the Arizona Wildcats’ leader?

Is it one of the team’s several fifth-year seniors, only two of which have been part of the program for more than one season?

Could it be one of the quartet of true freshmen who are oozing with talent but continue to remind you that they’re a year removed from high school basketball?

Or perhaps it’s the man in the middle, junior Ira Lee, the only Wildcat on the roster with more than a year of experience who also happens to have played his entire career in Tucson?

The fact that this question has to be asked speaks volumes about Arizona, and is at least partially to blame for its erratic play this season.

“It’s kind of hard to really give the full title of who’s a leader, who’s not,” Lee said Tuesday. “This year it’s different.”:

As Arizona (16-7, 6-4 Pac-12) heads to the Bay Area for a road trip it must sweep in order to stay in the conference title race, there are questions about who will lead this team into March and beyond. Not in terms of their performance, but in terms of guidance and direction.

“The more seasoned your group is, in terms of being through things and experiences, I think there’s less of a difference between ‘things are good, this is how I feel, things aren’t good, this is how I feel,’” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “It’s more even keel. When you’ve had a team that’s been through these experiences, it’s almost something you really don’t have to address. Because inherently they’ve learned.”

It seemed like the UA had learned when it swept the Washington schools on the road two weeks ago, the first (and only) time a Pac-12 team has pulled off a conference road sweep this season. Then The Wildcats nearly blew a 20-point lead to USC and put forth an abysmal offensive performance in falling to UCLA at McKale Center, and once again any momentum that might have been forming was stopped in its path.

That’s how it was after Arizona lost five of seven following a 9-0 start, then again when the Wildcats collapsed at ASU after looking quite dominant in beating Utah and Colorado the weekend before.

That’s where leadership—or a lack of it—comes in.

While Miller believes a team’s best players are often its leaders—“everybody respects those that are out there when it means the most,” he said—it’s just not the same as with his best Arizona teams, many of which had a balance of young studs and savvy veterans.

“I’ll use Lauri Markkanen as an example,” Miller said, referring to the 2016-17 squad that went 16-2 in Pac-12 play and made the Sweet 16. “He was obviously an outstanding freshman for us, but you can’t discount Kadeem Allen. He was in his third year here, his fifth year out of high school. He emerged as just a great leader. Having him out there as a starting point guard clearly helped a guy who had never been, not only in college basketball but had never been in the country other than one time.

Miller also cited the 2014-15 team, which also went 16-2 and reached the Elite Eight. Stanley Johnson was the team’s leading scorer and No. 2 rebounder but the freshman was surrounded by so much experience that he didn’t have to carry the team like Arizona’s current freshmen have been asked to do so often.

“He had his moments where he didn’t play well, where he was learning the change from high school to college, but he was surrounded by such an older, veteran group that that responsibility didn’t always fall on him,” Miller said.

Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Josh Green are averaging 42.1 points, 16.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game, the equivalent of 58.1 percent of the scoring, 42.4 percent of the rebounds and 54.4 percent of the assists. No other major conference team in college basketball is nearly as reliant on its freshmen as Arizona.

“It’s remarkable what we’ve asked (this year’s freshmen) to do and what they have been able to do,” Miller said. “The difference of what it would be like without them versus having them here. Sometimes I always feel like it’s unfair.”

While there have been some instances of late where one of the older players—Jemarl Baker Jr., Stone Gettings, Max Hazzard, Lee or Dylan Smith—has broken out with a clutch performance, each has just as often been invisible. Not just on the stat sheet but in the ability to lead those around them.

“We have eight guys right now that are playing games that weren’t physically here a year ago,” Miller said. “It’s hard to develop a culture of leadership in such a quick way, so you’re developing it as it goes. You hope when you get to late February, early March, that you have just a solid foundation, that your best players have emerged.”