One Game In: Doom and Gloom For the New Arizona?Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 7th, 2014
It was Arizona’s first night without Brandon Ashley. While the rest of these Wildcats have spent three months playing with each other, make no mistake — this is the equivalent of a brand new team out there. Minus Ashley, the overwhelming frontcourt advantage that Arizona sported has been lessened; the defensive philosophy has changed; the end-game scenarios now feature as many negatives as positives; and the whole chemistry of the team is different. Really, this is back to exhibition season for the Wildcats; these guys are starting all over.
First, while we originally thought guys like Jordin Mayes and Matt Korcheck would see increased roles, neither player took off his warm-ups against Oregon; rather, it was freshman Elliott Pitts who stepped in and played 12 generally solid minutes. Prior to last night, Pitts had played a grand total of six minutes in Pac-12 play: three in mop-up duty in a blowout over Arizona State, and then three more against Cal on Saturday night. His inclusion in the seven-man rotation signals a shift in style; where once this team was predicated on dominating the front line, now you’re going to see Arizona play more three-guard lineups. Pitts brings good energy and what looks like a confident three-point stroke, but at this point in his career, he’s a replacement-level player. Another ripple from the Ashley injury is that it appears Gabe York – a fine player, yes – will shift from a guy earning minute totals somewhere in the mid-teens to the mid-20s. Nothing against York at all, but he’s a significant step down from Ashley’s production. Both of these guys are going to improve and Arizona is going to get used to playing with them in their rotation, but basically it boils down to this: Brandon Ashley’s 28 minutes per game are going to be shifted to about 12 minutes per game for Pitts, maybe eight extra minutes for York, and then eight extra minutes split between Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon.
More concerning than even that downer is the fact that end-game scenarios have now blatantly changed. In the closing minutes of tight Arizona games to this point, we’ve largely seen pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop action with Nick Johnson and Ashley, a pair of guys shooting 77.6 and 75.7 percent from the free throw line, respectively. Now, at least on one game’s sample, we see Gordon sliding into Ashley’s role, replacing that 75.7 percent free throw shooting with a 42.2 percent mark (and slipping). You don’t win a ton of tight games when your second-best offensive option is a 40 percent free throw shooter. Throw in the fact that Ashley’s replacement in the starting lineup, Rondae Holis-Jefferson, is also a liability from the free throw line, and you have very real reason for concern.
And then defensively? Well, let’s put it this way: Thursday night the Wildcats allowed Oregon – a somewhat undersized team without dominant rebounders – to grab 39.4 percent of their own misses. This is the highest offensive rebounding percentage the Wildcats have allowed to any of their opponents this season. Only three other times in the previous 22 games have the Wildcats allowed even more than 35 percent. It appears that the Wildcats are now merely average on the offensive glass. With the Ashley injury, Arizona has unfortunately given back its two main advantages.
One other bit of gloom and doom, just to make Wildcat fans feel all swell and happy about their win over Oregon: Are we in the midst of another Nick Johnson February swoon? He’s been largely excellent throughout his Arizona career, but man has he ever had some mid-to-late season struggles in his time in Tucson. As a freshman, he shot a 35.5% eFG post-Groundhog Day, down more than 13 points from his season average. As a sophomore, his eFG% dropped seven points past February 1, with that mostly saved by a terrific Pac-12 Tournament. And now as a junior, and after mention as potential National Player of the Year candidate, he’s 6-of-30 from the field and 0-of-10 from deep in February. Yikes.
Okay, so that’s, what, 700-ish words of telling you that Arizona doesn’t have a prayer? On a night when they actually won a tough conference game? Well, here’s the good news: The Wildcats still have a two-and-a-half game lead in the conference standings; they’ve shown the ability to win close games; they’ve still got plenty of versatile talent; and they’ve got one of the very best coaches in not only the Pac-12, but the nation. And yes, they’re still the heavy favorite to win the conference. But, while now would be the perfect time to slip in a nice 400-word diatribe against the horror that is unbalanced conference schedules (Al Qaeda is clearly behind unbalanced conference schedules), there are absolutely no gimmes remaining on Arizona’s slate. The Wildcats still have to play a tough and improving Oregon State team twice. At Arizona State. At Utah and Colorado. Home against the Bay Area schools. And at Oregon to wrap up the season. It would take a collapse for this team to not win the Pac-12 title, yes, but there are more things at stake than just the conference championship. If the Wildcats can get through conference play with, say, a 15-3 record and then make it at least to the semis in Vegas, they’ll probably earn the #1 seed in the West and get to play first-weekend NCAA Tournament games in San Diego and then regional-round games in Anaheim (although San Diego State is going to have something to say about that plush assignment). Too many slip-ups and that comfortable regional path to the Final Four could be in jeopardy. And, god forbid UCLA actually gets it together, or we could have a replay of the 2013 collapse in the works.