When the Arizona Wildcats lost five of seven games in December and early January, completely wiping out any momentum from a 9-0 start, plenty of questions arose about whether this ultra-talented team was capable of putting it all together for runs at the Pac-12 title and that elusive Final Four.
But with four wins in their last five games, including the first road sweep by any conference team this season, Arizona’s outlook is looking far rosier.
“I never really felt, when we lost a couple close games, that the bottom was falling out,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Tuesday. “We’ve tried to take a very balanced approach and keep working on those things that have helped us win.”
Miller was referring to things like rebounding and turnover avoidance, two areas that Arizona has improved in and were keys to home wins over Utah and Colorado and the Washington road sweep. But just as important, and maybe more so, has been the play of the Wildcats’ newest transfers.
It’s hard to argue Arizona would have won at Washington last Thursday had former Kentucky guard Jemarl Baker Jr. and ex-Cornell forward Stone Gettings not played like they did. And Gettings’ monster game Saturday at Washington State was also a big part of that easy victory.
During the Utah/Colorado sweep it was guard Max Hazzard, a grad transfer from UC-Irvine, who sunk nine 3-pointers and had 33 points in 33 total minutes of action.
“No doubt about it, experience is still very valuable in college basketball,” Miller said. “A lot’s been made of our freshman class, and deservedly so, for the way they’ve performed. But Stone has really emerged, and Max is solid. Jemarl Baker is very solid.”
Gettings has completely transformed Arizona’s team since moving into the starting lineup five games ago. He’s averaging 10.0 points and 4.8 rebounds on 58.8 percent shooting, and the 6-foot-9 senior’s ability to play inside and out has created much more space on the court than was the case when Chase Jeter was starting.
“He’s just been imposing his will the last few games,” fellow senior Dylan Smith said of Gettings. “It’s good to have older guys on the team. Most of the teams that I’ve seen here and I’ve played on, we’ve had some older guys like Parker (Jackson-Cartwright), Dusan (Ristic), Kadeem Allen. They’ve been through it, they know what it takes to win.”
Hazzard has been Arizona’s top 3-point shooter in Pac-12 play, at 41.9 percent, making 11 of 22 during the last four victories.
But Baker may be the transfer that’s had the biggest impact simply for how well he’s taken care of the ball. The redshirt sophomore has just three turnovers in Pac-12 play, covering 165 minutes, and his last giveaway came six minutes into the first half against Utah on Jan. 16.
It doesn’t hurt that he can score in bunches when needed, too, like when he dropped a career-high 17—including the game-winning 3—at Washington.
“As far back as the Red-Blue Game we talked about the versatility of our team, the depth, that we’re going to be dependent on and take great value in those that don’t start the game,” Miller said. “And that’s really not changed.
“We’re definitely a better team when we get contributions from everybody.”