Four Thoughts on Arizona’s Season OpenerPosted by Andrew Murawa on November 11th, 2013
Arizona opened its season in ho-hum fashion on Friday night with an 11-point win over a middling Cal Poly team. While the final margin wasn’t necessarily impressive, the Wildcats did show off some things that should have their fans excited. Let’s take a look at four of them:
Defensive Upside. Against Cal Poly on Friday night, you saw it in spurts. With freak athletes like Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley able to switch onto smaller opponents with ease, and with excellent veteran perimeter defenders like T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson, the Wildcats have the ability to be a ridiculously good defensive squad this season. Back in his final season at Xavier, Sean Miller’s team was rated 12th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency behind players like Derrick Brown, B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson. But in his time in Tucson, while he’s put good defensive teams on the court, the Wildcats have never been elite, topping out in the 40s the last three seasons. This team has the defensive capability to creep into the teens this season, and maybe even the top 10. Perimeter defenders, athletic versatile bigs and an ability to clean the glass with abandon: Despite having some offensive struggles in their opener (which is completely overstating it, since they averaged 1.19 points per possession), this is a Wildcat team that can rely on their defense when things get rough shooting the ball.
Aaron Gordon’s Jumper Makes Baby Jesus Cry. The consensus is that one of the biggest concerns for the Wildcats this season will be their outside shooting. While Johnson and McConnell are pretty dialed in from deep, newcomers Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are seen as having jumpers that are kindly called works in progress. Well, in their first close-up, it appears that Hollis-Jefferson has made significant progress on that work while Gordon’s work has yet to begin. Honestly, his shot from any kind of range needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt. He was 2-of-6 from the free throw line, and that was with the benefit of getting to concentrate on his form. When shooting from any range further than – oh, I don’t know, about a dunk or closer – his form was awful. Gordon can (and will) still be a major factor for the Wildcats, but my god, that jumper makes my eyes burn. And yet, somehow he jacked up a couple threes – and actually hit one! Any success produced by the jump shot is purely accidental. Meanwhile, just to end this section on a positive note, Hollis-Jefferson’s jumper looks solid; he’ll just need to continue to work on it.
Brandon Ashley: Breakout Leader For Breakout Player. Last year, Ashley was a long and skinny freshman, relying mostly on his length and athleticism to become a solid rotation player. This year? Man, you can tell he’s put in a lot of work in the offseason. He’s bulked up and is now a serious load on the block. He’s new rock-solid base will allow him to use his ridiculously long arms to become a brutal post defender on the block. He grabbed nine boards, blocked a shot and made four of his five attempts from the field against an admittedly smaller team on Friday night, but he looks like a guy ready to explode onto the Pac-12 scene this season.
Gabe York, Surprise Starter. Now let’s take those last two points and keep them in mind when we discuss Gabe York and his inclusion in the starting lineup to the exclusion of sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski. Tarczewski started every game the Wildcats played last year, but he’s now clearly been passed by Ashley in the rotation. Part of this is the fact that Zeus is at his best on the block, a spot where Gordon is necessarily going to be spending a lot of time. Throw in the fact that Ashley looks to be just as capable of a defender on the block and the concern about the team’s perimeter shooting, and it makes sense that York, a superb athlete with a strong stroke, has jumped into the starting lineup. This move makes the ‘Cats a stronger perimeter shooting team, while sacrificing little in the middle defensively and clearing space for Gordon to operate around the rim.