It was hoped Sean Miller would find answers to the questions raised when Brandon Ashley was lost for the season. After an impressive road sweep, answers have indeed been found.
To say the Wildcats were struggling offensively was like saying a couple people made jokes about the Sochi Olympics. Arizona only had hit 70 points once in the past four weeks and was just 2-2 since the injury. Blowout wins looked like a thing of the past, especially on the road.
After an 88-point explosion and 27-point margin of victory against Colorado the UA is back on a winning streak with some extra cushion in the Pac-12 standings. What went right? What was the discovery?
The key for this team now and moving forward is someone getting hot. It sounds simple but there are some important clarifications:
1) It’s not going to be the same guy every time.
Nick Johnson tried to carry the extra burden after Ashley got hurt. In the four-game stretch against Cal, Oregon, OSU and ASU Johnson averaged 15 shots per game but only made a quarter of them. He was 1-of-18 (6%) on 3s. The Wildcats weren’t built around a superstar before the injury and trying to be one afterwards wasn’t going to work.
2) It doesn’t have to be for a whole game.
Against Utah, Gabe York had 13 points in the first 23 minutes. The fact that he only had two points the rest of the way didn’t matter because the 13 helped give the Cats enough margin to survive until overtime. That’s when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who had been 3-of-8 for just seven points in regulation, caught fire and scored six straight points in overtime.
3) Whoever it is just needs to be really hot.
It can’t be merely an extra bucket here and there. It has to be York hitting his first five shots against Utah. Or Aaron Gordon going 9-for-9 (with two 3s!) in the second half versus Colorado. Somebody in a red and blue uniform needs to be a red-hot offensive threat for an extended period of time for this squad to score points.
Is it risky to rely on someone hitting a good streak? Yes, but that’s where things stand. If all the Wildcats run cold at the same time you end up with a game like against ASU where if you give up 52 points you lose.
(Speaking of streaky, don’t look now but Gordon is now shooting a better percentage from deep (33.3%) than Johnson (33.1%)).
Moving York into the starting lineup looks like a stroke of genius on Miller’s part. It really helps to have an extra shooter on the floor. When Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski play together you face three defenders who never have to leave the paint. If Johnson isn’t hitting from outside there is no room to create inside the arc.
Compare that to the start of the Colorado game. Johnson and T.J. McConnell both hit early jumpers. Elliott Pitts added a 3-pointer in the first half. That forces the defense to extend to the arc and McConnell just carved up the Buffaloes to the tune of eight assists in the second half alone.
York has accepted the challenge of being a starter by playing a more rounded game. He had two assists in each of the games on the road trip. He pulled down a total of 14 rebounds. He used to come into games and only shoot 3s so people forget what kind of athlete he is. He won the dunk contest in the Red/Blue game last year and he has the ability to do this:
York rebounding and playing defense allows Pitts to move into Gabe’s old role of gunner off the bench. York and Pitts can now play together which means more rest for everyone.
This type of experimentation is what the new “out-of-conference” season is for, and it sure paid off against the Mountain schools. Now there are two home games to fine-tune the new rotation and then it’s taking this recast show to Oregon, Vegas and as far as the hotness will take it.
Thanks to Stanford, that Oregon trip might not even matter in the Pac-12 race. The Cardinal made sure UCLA didn’t get its first road sweep of the season which means the Wildcats can clinch a share of the Pac-12 championship with wins against Cal and Stanford at McKale this week. Heading to Corvallis/Eugene with at least a tie for the title and an inside track to the No. 1 seed in the West would ease some pressure on this team.
It is a universal trait of fandom to look at the most recent game and think – good or bad – My team is going to play like this the rest of the season! When things go well We the People think our guys will continue to roll but when the team struggles we fear things are falling apart. It’s safe to say optimism was waning after the ASU game.
One week later the perspective has changed again. Look at it this way: The UA played three straight road games against teams that were 13-1, 16-1 and 16-1 at home. Arizona only lost to one of them, and it took double overtime.
The game in Tempe was horrible but just eight days later the Cats put together their most impressive performance. Not just “since Brandon Ashley was injured,” but for the entire Pac-12 season.
Miller and his staff deserve credit for being willing to change and adapt. The players deserve credit for continuing to believe in themselves and each other. Now they have to keep working and stay ready.
Ready for their next turn to get hot.
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