Replacing Zeus: Arizona’s Options Moving Forward

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 4th, 2015

Now that there is official word that Arizona senior center Kaleb Tarczewski will miss at least a month with a stress reaction and strained muscle in his left foot, it is probably time to take a look at Sean Miller’s contingency plans. The Wildcats are better positioned than most teams to handle this sort of adversity and that is because not too many other teams can replace a legitimate seven-footer with NBA potential with another legitimate seven-footer with perhaps even more NBA potential. But simply plugging sophomore Dusan Ristic into Tarczewski’s spot in the starting lineup isn’t Miller’s only option and the coach has been generous enough to give us a glimpse at both options in the two games that the senior has already missed.

The Wildcats will miss Tarczewski's defensive presence most (Kai Casey, CU Independent)

The Wildcats will miss Tarczewski’s defensive presence most. (Kai Casey, CU Independent)

In the first game without Tarczewski’s services, Miller opted for a more traditional solution. Ristic started in the team’s loss to Providence, playing 18 minutes and finishing with six points and five rebounds while defending Friars’ forward Ben Bentil. On the next night against a smaller and more athletic Boise State team, Ristic barely moved from the bench as Mark Tollefson got the start and freshman Allonzo Trier received the extra minutes. Ristic managed to snag five rebounds in just nine minutes of action against the less physical Broncos, but he mostly looked out of place against an opponent that could stretch the floor at every position. With just two games of supporting evidence, it seems likely that Miller is smartly choosing to mix and match his lineups based on the opponent rather than make the common-sense lineup change and just add Ristic to the starting lineup.

It would be negligent to not mention the possibility that Miller is mixing and matching his rotations primarily because Ristic hasn’t yet proven that he can handle an expanded role. Tarczewski is no world-beater, especially on the offensive end of the floor, but he understands his role on the team extremely well (8.6 PPG; 7.2 RPG). The problem that Miller faces is that the leap Ristic was supposed to take after a solid freshman campaign hasn’t yet occurred.

When comparing Tarczewski and Ristic based on the small sample of advanced statistics, Ristic, while the better rebounder and a more willing passer, also has the lowest offensive rating of any player on the team other than Elliot Pitts. What’s particularly interesting is that, despite playing just 36.8 percent of the team’s available minutes, Ristic’s usage rate effectively mirrors that of star forward Ryan Anderson. For whatever reason, Ristic is a focal point of the offense when he is on the floor but he has been so brutally inefficient there that he makes it hard for Miller to justify playing him for long stretches. He is the most skilled big man on the team and one of the more skilled seven-footers in the country, but his ability to play within the framework of the offense will dictate his playing time during this stretch.

The Onus is Now On Sophomore Dusan Ristic To Pick Up The Slack.

Miller’s other option seems less realistic if only because it drastically downgrades the team’s interior presence, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Tollefson is a stretch forward with a track record of a dangerous outside shooter, but he is still adjusting to his new team and his shooting has been woeful (5-of-18 3FG) thus far. Trier is a physically enticing freshman who has adequate size to guard multiple positions, but his offensive value currently relies upon his ability to get to the free throw line and make them. His shooting has been even worse than Tollefson’s and he doesn’t have the track record to expect drastic improvement as the season goes on.

We will get to see Miller’s mixing and matching play out over the next two weeks as it seems likely that Ristic will play a lot against Gonzaga and its three-headed frontcourt monster. But the next three opponents after the Zags don’t have great size. It doesn’t take years of organized coaching experience to understand that Arizona will be better off if it can develop Ristic into a reliable interior option on both ends of the floor. It will give the team greater balance and allow Miller to deploy Tollefson and Trier as alternatives depending on the situation. The injury to Tarczewski, while never ideal, could provide an opportunity for Ristic to prove to his coach and NBA scouts alike that he can become a reliable inside player. Arizona’s long-term success this season may depend on it.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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