The brackets are done and the initial outrage concerning the Pac-12’s poor seeds has been released. All that’s left now is to do something about it.
The Arizona Wildcats have gotten to this point with a collection of players filling varying roles. To make March great, however, they’ll need two senior leaders to be closers.
During the four-week stretch where the UA went 4-4 and lost out on the Pac-12 championship (three different times) the frustration among fans was the team looked like it had plateaued at best. The freshmen didn’t appear to be getting better, the veterans were slumping and the squad was regressing instead of progressing.
There’s a renewed sense of hope after the last two weeks of improved play. It took the entire season but now it seems like everyone in the rotation has an understood and accepted role.
Nick Johnson is the best perimeter defender and, with 55 points and 13 assists in the past four games, he’s back to being a complimentary playmaker. Kaleb Tarczewski is a rebounder and an occasional threat to score in the low post. Brandon Ashley rebounds, hits midrange jumpers and slides down the baseline for opportunity buckets. Grant Jerrett is a pick-and-pop 3-point shooter and shot blocker. Jordin Mayes provides shooting off the bench. (And Angelo Chol plays every other game or so to make the crowd go wild.)
Everyone pitches in and you ride the couple guys who get hot each game. That’s enough against midlevel teams like Colorado or ASU but if the Wildcats want to survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and have any chance against Ohio State and Gonzaga – in other words, if the Cats are going to break through against a top team for the first time this calendar year – Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons have to come through with the game on the line.
Are you sweating yet? Hill has shot under 40% in each of the last three games. Lyons hasn’t scored 15 points in a game in a month. But Hill has the experience of the last four years – including the 2011 Elite Eight run – with Sean Miller. And Lyons, while he’s struggled playing a new position this year, has the fortitude to look horrible on eight shots…and nail number nine.
In the most recent UCLA game the role players were rolling. Johnson shut down Larry Drew and dished out five assists. Tarczewski pulled down 13 boards. Ashley went inside and outside for 15 points. Jerrett hit a huge three to tie the score with a minute left. The stage was set for the athletic version of senior moments.
On that final possession in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal game I liked the motion and passing much better than having Lyons stand out by midcourt dribbling down the clock. I liked the ball ending up in Hill’s hands as the facilitator.
When he made the shot-fake (a good play) and drew another defender (a good play) he either could have gone for the two and the tie or the other option was the kick out to Lyons on the left wing who was open for a potential game-winning three.
Hill took the shot and missed. Lyons had the ball down three in the game at Pauley Pavilion and he missed. A shot from either player stops the breath of any Wildcat fan. Neither is Salim Stoudamire with ice in his veins and daggers shooting from his fingertips. But these are the guys with the most experience putting the ball through the hoop.
Hill and Lyons need to trust their teammates throughout the game but they need to come through for their teammates at the end.
A lot of people are going to pick Arizona as a first-round upset. A lot. When you finish 5-5 in your last 10 games and you come from a league where the champion is a 6-seed and the conference tournament champ is a 12, there aren’t going to be a lot of predictions for a long stay at the Dance.
The Cats’ defensive effort returned the last three games but if it disappears again Belmont will shoot them out of the gym. If they don’t play well as a unit on the offensive end they’ll be done. But if the Wildcats do play D and they do make some shots they’ll be able to go toe to toe with people and take games to the wire.
That’s when the UA needs a couple seniors to become heroes.
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