The Arizona Wildcats won in a blowout and everyone had a chance to catch his breath.
The lopsided victory over Oregon State provided rest for the No. 2 team in the country in more ways than one.
This team has three regular-season goals: Win the Pac-12, earn the No. 1 seed in the West region and peak at the end of the year. The problem is those three tasks don’t necessarily go together.
To claim a conference championship and a top seed in the tournament you need wins. To peak in March you need your players to be fresh. The challenge for a shallow (as in not-deep) team is to get the wins needed without running out of gas before the finish line.
Wildcat fans only have to think back six seasons for an example of the negative effect of too many minutes on too few players. In 2008 Kevin O’Neill absolutely drove his starters into the ground. Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger and Jawann McClellan all averaged 35 minutes a game. In the final home game – the 29th contest of the season – each member of the tired trio played all 40 minutes. When the Cats lost in the Pac-12 tournament four guys played 38+ minutes. KO’s rotation was so tight, light couldn’t escape.
On the one hand you can see why he did it. At 19-14 the UA needed every single one of those victories to get into the tournament. The effect, however, was a team that only scored 65 points in the first round and lost by double-digits.
This past week showed the best and worst scenarios for the 2014 Wildcats. Against Oregon, Nick Johnson played a season-high 39 minutes and shot 5-of-16 from the field. Kaleb Tarczewski logged 36 minutes, also a season high, with Matt Korcheck never taking off his warmups. Arizona posted horrible shooting numbers (40% FG / 25% 3FG / 54% FT) and had to grind out a two-point win.
Then there was the beauty of the Oregon State game. Johnson only played 28 minutes and nobody played more than 31. Elliott Pitts, Jordin Mayes and Korcheck combined to contribute 24 mintutes and the UA won by 22.
Pitts took a charge and pulled down three rebounds which will give him more confidence on the defensive end. Mayes hit a 3 and nailed all six of his free throws. How valuable would it be if the 7th or 8th man turns out to be a senior who has already played in seven tournament games (with eight made 3-pointers)?
I still want to see more of Korcheck. He could be a crucial contributor off the bench because of his size. If he could play a couple minutes each half it would keep the other bigs fresher and prepare Korcheck in case he has to go extended minutes due to foul trouble.
If Pitts/Mayes/Korcheck in some order can combine for 15 minutes a game you’re halfway to the 29 minutes Brandon Ashley was averaging before he got hurt. Then you feed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (who is shooting 52% from the floor and 89% from the line in the three games he’s played starter’s minutes) all he can handle and you’re able to minimize the extra workload on the remaining starters.
In cruising past OSU (a Beaver breezer?) the Wildcats also earned some mental rest. Aaron Gordon made 8-of-12 shots after hitting just 11-of-42 (26%) in his previous four games. The team shot 50% as a whole, giving everyone a break from the “What’s wrong with the offense?” questions. The guys proved to the college hoops world – and to themselves – that they can still score points and still dominate someone without Ashley.
Both kinds of rest come together this week as the Wildcats have four days before their next game. The physical respite and renewed confidence will come in handy with the Cats facing three consecutive road games in which the home team is good enough to produce a court-storming upset.
There’s a lot of basketball left in this new season and the forecast doesn’t call for any more blowouts but for one night the Wildcats and their fans got a break from the pressures that come with trying to win championships.
We all need a little rest from time to time.
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