The Arizona Wildcats basketball team got swept in Los Angeles and senior Mark Lyons was right in the middle of it for all the wrong reasons.
The point guard disparity in the two games was as obvious as Shabazz Muhammad’s college plans. Both Larry Drew II of UCLA and USC’s Jio Fontan ran circles around Lyons. The UA guard’s turnovers and lack of playmaking on the offensive end only widened the gap.
Sean Miller gambled on bringing in Lyons and it hasn’t paid off over the course of the season. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was the right move at the time.
Arizona needed someone to play point guard for this year. Last April Duquesne PG T.J. McConnell announced he was transferring to Arizona but would have to sit out the 2012-13 season. The very next day troubled freshman Josiah Turner was gone, leaving a hole at the position in 2013. It look less than a month for Miller to reconnect with Lyons, his former recruit at Xavier, and land the instantly-eligible transfer.
The early reviews were excellent. Comeback victories! Undefeated non-conference season! The start of the Pac-12 season was solid up to and including a convincing win at ASU. Mark Lyons was right in the middle of all that too.
But as the year has worn on it’s become clear this team is missing a true point guard, someone who can take care of the ball, break down a defense and deliver a pass to the right guy at the right time to create open shots. None of this describes Lyons.
That’s not his fault. It’s not like Lyons set up a fake online profile saying he dishes out seven assists a game and makes half his shots. In fact, when you look at his stats from last year they look remarkably similar to what we’re seeing now.
The 15.1 scoring average is identical. He shot 42.5% from the floor last year; it’s 42.4% this year. 2.8 assists a game then and 3.1 now. The only numbers that are noticeably worse are his 3-point shooting (down to 33% from 39%) and turnovers (up to 2.8 from 2.2) but both can be easily explained by no longer playing next to Tu Holloway and his five assists a game.
The move to bring in Lyons is reminiscent of Lute Olson gambling on Brandon Jennings passing his SAT in 2008. If it had worked Jennings would’ve teamed up with Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger to make the 2008-09 Wildcats even more dangerous than the Sweet 16 team they became. Jennings, however, ended up in Italy, Olson’s health failed him again and that one last victory tour never got out of the garage.
I was in favor of bringing in Jennings for one year then and I was 100% for the addition of Lyons this past summer. Kevin Parrom and Solomon Hill deserved a shot at playing their senior season on a contender.
And this team has contended. As late as one week ago the Wildcats had their sights set on a conference championship. It was not a mistake to bring in Lyons.
Turner was the mistake. It isn’t enough to bring in highly regarded recruits. The trick is to find the right highly regarded recruits and Miller whiffed there.
Will McConnell be the answer? His numbers from last year are mouth-watering: 51% shooting with 5.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. When he takes the floor next year he’ll have the body of a fourth-year player with a full season in Miller’s system under his belt. If T.J. doesn’t work out it’s time to search the McKale Center storage closets for a voodoo doll.
So that’s next year. For the rest of 2013 you have to accept what you see from Arizona. It’s way too late to talk about potential. When you’re in fourth place and you went O-fer against the top three teams, you’re the fourth-best team.
The strategy isn’t going to change either. If a Wildcat gets a glimpse at a semi-open 3-point shot he’s going to take it no matter what the shot clock says. If a Cat thinks he can slip through three guys to get to the rim, hope for a whistle.
There are three mini-seasons left. Goal #1: Beat ASU. Splits are no longer acceptable against those guys. Then you go as far as you can in Vegas and do the same in the NCAA tournament.
Yes, you’re supposed to peak in March and, yes, this team looks more likely to valley. But the one thing you can say about these guys is they don’t quit. Call it heart or say it’s just because the Cats always seem to be trailing, but this group ignores the score and fights you to the end. That’s worth applauding for as long as the season lasts.
Maybe playing as an underdog in a do-or-die environment will finally get the team to play the entire game like it does in the final five minutes.
Next year will be a fresh start with some fresh faces and renewed optimism. But don’t abandon this year. Root for the Cats to force turnovers. Hope for the 3s to fall. See if this team has any more comebacks left in them.
There will be plenty of time later for next year’s point guard to be the focal point.
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