After two years of uncertainty, Sean Miller has finally brought stability to Arizona.
The biggest question facing Miller when he took the job in Tucson would be whether or not he could take Arizona to a 26th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Miller has said repeatedly that he came to Arizona to build a program, not continue the streak.
Through its first fifteen games this season, Arizona is 7-8. The streak appears to be in its most serious jeopardy since it began in 1985.
The last two seasons Arizona sat on the bubble on selection Sunday. Last season, most of the bracket predictors had the Wildcats out of the NCAA's. The NCAA selection committee determined that Arizona earned its way into the tournament. Behind interim coach Russ Pennell the Wildcats proved they belonged in the tournament by advancing to the Sweet 16.
The Wildcats have 15 games remaining, eight at home and seven on the road. In a down Pac-Ten, they definitely have a chance for a strong finish.
With a young team, Miller will have to continue to see growth and improvement from UA to close with a flourish. An 11-4 finish plus possibly a win or two in the Pac-10 tournament would likely be what the Wildcats need to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, they would be faced with having to win the Pac-10 tournament and secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Through the first fifteen games, nine Arizona players average double figures in minutes per game. Miller has said he would like to settle on an eight man rotation with two other players that receive limited minutes. Seven of his top nine players are freshman or sophomores.
Only senior point guard Nic Wise and junior forward Jamelle Horne are upperclassmen. Sophomore guard Kyle Fogg is the only other player that received significant minutes in 2009.
The ability of his young team to improve will be extremely important. The freshmen are going to have to grow up quickly. Most young teams suffer from a lack of consistency. Inconsistency is what has haunted Arizona through the first half of the season.
Derrick Williams has been the only consistent freshman so far. How much they grow will go along way towards determining Arizona's success going forward. After coming off the bench in the season opener, Williams has started every game since. He has exceeded expectations this season. Williams shares the team lead in scoring at 15.1 PPG, leads with team in field goal percentage and is second in blocked shots and rebounds.
Solomon Hill has been the well rounded player that he was expected to be. He is fifth on the team in scoring, second in assists and third in rebounding. He also frequently brings the ball up the court and can run the point if necessary despite being a small forward.
Lamont Jones has given Miller a tough minded guard off the bench. Kyryl Natyazhko hasn't lived up to his potential, but does provide Miller with size inside. The return of swingman Kevin Parrom will be a huge lift going forward. Parrom missed the first six weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his foot.
Staying healthy will be important for a team that is trying to develop continuity and is starting to get familiar with each other. As Miller figures out his rotation, Arizona should continue to develop as a team.
Arizona's played their most complete game in their 77-63 victory at UCLA on January 2. The Bruins shot just 40.8 percent for the game and were held to five for 24 in the first half. Kyle Fogg scored a career high 25 points and Williams continued his strong play with 16 points and nine rebounds.
The Wildcats showed a greater commitment to defense in the first half. They were able to cruise in the second half after taking a 15 point lead into the locker room. After their abysmal first half, the Bruins shot 60 percent from the floor in the second half. Against the better teams in the Pac, Arizona will need to show a better defensive commitment for all 40 minutes.
Miller was able to get his team to shut off the passing lanes and force the Bruins to rely on jump shots. The Wildcats shut down UCLA a game after they hit 63 percent from the floor and 65 percent from three-point-range to defeat Arizona State.
Parrom getting healthy and the return of Lamont "Momo" Jones gave Miller his full rotation for the first time this season against UCLA. Solidifying the rotation will help Miller define the player's role. Knowing what is expected of them will give a young team more defined roles and a better chance to grow. Kyle Fogg didn't miss a game, but struggled early after recovering from a pre-season thigh injury and H1N1.
Keeping a team that doesn't know each other well healthy is going to be extremely important. With a young nucleus, Miler needs his team in game situations to learn how to play together.
Arizona's biggest weakness this season has been outside shooting. As a team they shoot only 43.8 percent from the floor and connect on only 35 percent of their three-point attempts. Against UCLA, the Wildcats hit 48.3 percent from the floor and 40 percent from beyond the arc. Williams and Hill are the only regulars shooting 50 percent or better and Horne and Fogg are the only players in the rotation shooting better than 40 percent from three.
For Arizona to improve, they will need to shoot better. If they don't, teams will be able to sit back in a zone and dare the Wildcats to shoot from outside. Fogg getting healthy should be a huge lift for Arizona. His success from the perimeter will make Arizona a better team.
The ability to win on the road cannot be understated in conference play. Arizona's win at Pauley Pavilion was big from a confidence standpoint. Arizona caught a bad break by having to play USC in the Pac-10 opener. There is no telling how the Trojans will respond to the loss of post-season play.
Arizona is going to have to continue to win games on the road in order to have a chance at a post-season berth in 2010. Their remaining road trips this season are in the Bay Area, to the Oregon schools, Washington schools and 100 miles up the road to Arizona State.
Arizona's fortunes this season have seemed to depend on how well Nic Wise, Jamelle Horne and Derrick Williams play. Wise and Horne are the only two upperclassmen in Miller's rotation, and Williams is Arizona's only post presence.
Until the win at UCLA, Wise had played well in every win and poor in every loss. Fogg's big game helped the Wildcats overcome a poor performance from Wise to win.
If Wise and Horne are playing well, it lets the other players concentrate on their roles and not place as much pressure on them to perform. Horne averages 15.1PPG in wins and just 6.p PPG in losses. Wise puts up 19.4 in wins and just 11.3 in losses.
Wise specifically has really fallen off from last season. Without Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger to take the pressure off of him, defenses have been devised to stop Wise. Although his scoring has remained basically the same, his shooting percentages have fallen significantly. Wise shot 45 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three point range in 2009. Those averages have dropped to 41 and 35 this season. Both Wise and Horne have major drop offs in shooting in wins versus losses.
Down the stretch if Arizona is going to get hot and secure an at-large bid, they will need some big victories. They missed opportunities in close losses to UNLV, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt earlier this season. Their most recent loss at home to 11-3 Washington State would have been a big one.
In spite of what happens the remainder of this season, 2009-10 freshman class should be counted on as the one that saved Arizona. They were ranked the twelfth best recruiting class last spring.
Before Miller was hired, Arizona's 2010 prospects were being compared to the 2009 Indiana team. After Kelvin Sampson was fired during the 2008 season amidst recruiting violations, the Hoosier finished last season 6-25. With only one recruit expected to be coming in and Budinger and Hill going to the NBA and the strong possibility of Wise leaving, this season looked bleak.
Miller quickly was able to get commitments from Hill and Natyazhko. When Parrom became the third member of the class. When Tim Floyd was fired from USC later in the spring, the Trojans recruiting class quickly collapsed. Jones and Williams decided to attend Arizona instead of USC.
This year's freshmen will be the class that sets the foundation for Miller's recruiting classes that will follow. These freshmen will be the ones that will teach Miller system to the players that come to Tucson in future years.
If this is the year that the streak ends, Miller has still given Arizona fans something to look forward to in the future. Arizona's return to the Pac-10 elite and then national prominence should come in the next couple of years.
After two years of uncertainty, Sean Miller has finally brought stability to Arizona.