The Arizona Wildcats can either right the ship or continue on the course they have been charting. If the latter, an early bow out in both the Pac-12 and NCAA tournament is all but certain. If the former, the Wildcats may be able to fulfill all the loaded potential in this team.
This article addresses some of the pressing questions Arizona must answer if the direction of its play is to change. Some are simple and small, some overarching and large, but each is important for Arizona to maximize its play as March Madness begins.
From the start of the season through the last game against UCLA, turnovers have plagued the Arizona team.
It has been recognized and criticized by head coach Sean Miller and the team from very early on, but the bottom line hasn't changed. At more than 13 turnovers a game, the Wildcats rank 167th in the nation.
Last weekend it got even worse. The Wildcats turned the ball over 17 times against USC, and then gave it up 16 times against UCLA. These were staggering numbers even for the sloppy Wildcats.
The chances that this tendency changes this late in the season are slim. But if it doesn't, the Wildcats will bow out early in the NCAAs.
Sean Miller really only uses seven players. But he has 10 good ones. This is certainly perplexing, as Miller is taking one of his biggest advantages (a supremely deep team) and disregarding it.
While it is easy to say that a tight lineup creates more chemistry on the court, especially important in a motion offense like Miller's, the recent trends argue against this. The Arizona team has been getting worse both offensively and defensively as the season has progressed. The chemistry is on the decline and the tight rotation isn't producing. A mix-up would do some good.
If Miller's "extras" were not contributing, the lack of playing time would make sense. But again, this is not the case. Angelo Chol may be the best ninth man in the country. When he enters the game, the Arizona team is different, but many times better.
While not the rebounder Kaleb Tarczewski is, he is more athletic, a better finisher, a better shot-blocker and has better hands. Miller's marriage to Tarczewski is understandable, but Chol should play more.
Another underutilized talent is Jordin Mayes. The junior point guard showed against UCLA what type of impact he could have. Going against one of the premier point guards in the nation, Mayes was very strong. He shot the ball well, was solid with his handles and created good offense for his teammates.
None of those things could be said about Mark Lyons. While this is just one game, it was Mayes first chance in quite some time to play solid minutes. And he performed. Adding a guy to the lineup who has three years experience and who has shown he can contribute is a no-brainer.
Lastly, Gabe York is better than a garbage-time player. Getting a few "real" minutes for such a dynamic offensive player would not be detrimental. He would add some firepower and a change of pace.
A coach's playing rotation is usually set three-fourths of the way through the season, and I am sure Miller's is, but the team would be better if he took advantage of his bench's depth.
One of the most intriguing happenings in the UCLA game was the play of Grant Jerrett. I have said for a long time that Jerrett is the most polished of the three freshman bigs but that he was lacking in confidence. All he needed was breakout game. He needed one game where his shot, instead of rimming out like it has, just went in.
This is what happened at UCLA. Although the Cats lost in Los Angeles, Jerrett had a great game. He knocked down four three-pointers, grabbed several key offensive rebounds and played good defense. If my theory is right, he is going to play solid basketball the remainder of the season.
This has huge implications for the Wildcats. For most of the season, it was their offense, not the now struggling defense, that was lackluster. If Jerrett, with his shooting prowess and size, can be another solid option, every part of the offensive side of the ball will get easier.
The impact from his shooting alone will do wonders. It will spread the court for penetration. More penetration means more open shooters. Open shooters means better shooting, and better shooting means more space. More space gives Brandon Ashley and Tarczewski better results down low. In the end, a confident Jerrett means a better offensive team.
The game against the Bruins is just one out of 29 so far, so it may not be saying anything other than it took Jerrett a really long time to have a good game. But if Jerrett is going to show up every night here on out, the Wildcats just got considerably better during the loss at UCLA.
It is undeniable that Arizona relies heavily on the play of its seniors. To think of the season the Wildcats would have put together without Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom is scary. Lyons is responsible for four to five victories all his own. Hill probably five more. And Parrom all season long has made clutch plays at important times.
While Parrom's production has improved dramatically since his insertion into the starting lineup, Hill and Lyons have struggled for the past couple of weeks. In his last three games, Hill has failed to reach double figures twice. This hadn't happened in the previous 15 contests. In those three, he is averaging almost four turnovers per, has made only one three-pointer and is not getting to the line.
Lyons, saved by his ability to get to the line, has gone through a rough patch as well. On the trip to L.A., he shot 6-of-24 from the field, 1-10 from three, had six turnovers and just three assists. His play on the defensive side of the ball has been suspect as well.
These trends are short and probably won't extend much further, but they display what happens when Hill and Lyons don't play at a high level. The Wildcats lose.
Looking forward, Lyons must be smarter with the ball (both shot selection and turnovers). Hill needs to be more aggressive. He took took only seven shots against UCLA and got to the line only twice. Two games before that, he took only five and again got to the line only twice. Hill's aggression is a very good thing for the Wildcats.
Arizona's success rides largely on the backs of Lyons and Hill and Parrom. If they can play at a high level, the chance to play deep into the tourney is good.
While offense may be a serious question mark, defense is now more concerning.
Much of the year the defense played well, but as the season has progressed, the team has not been able to get stops. So much so that after the USC loss, Sean Miller called this the worst defensive team he has ever coached.
The numbers are well known. Against USC, the Wildcats gave up 89 points and better than 60 percent shooting. UCLA wasn't quite as good against Arizona, but still shot better than 40 percent from three and close to 47 percent overall.
Watching the team, you see a bad result on almost every possession. The opposing team might not score, but an open shot is almost always available. It seems like the Wildcats are always scrambling, always chasing, always out of control on defense.
The reason for the decline is again sloppy play. Sean Miller builds his defense around stopping penetration. This is done by packing four players several feet inside the three-point line and by applying strong ball pressure.
If the on-the-ball defender gets beat, he theoretically has help because of the pack line. But the on-the-ball defender must be smart about his pressure. The player can't allow a blow by. This has been one very consistent problem.
Mark Lyons and other guards (but mostly Lyons because he plays the most and the farthest out) plays too aggressively. He gets beat badly and then the gaps become too great. Breakdowns start, and if the offensive team is patient and moves the ball, an open shot will arrive.
The overaggressive play is the biggest problem for Sean Miller's defense. The ball pressure should be solid but more conservative. The goal should be to level off penetration instead of trying to steal the ball from the ball-handler. If so, it would allow the principles of Miller's defensive theory to take hold. It is a simple fix, but there is very little time left.