I got my first chance to see the Arizona Wildcats on Monday night. Their preseason woes had my interest piqued and, frankly, I wasn’t going to miss an Arizona game for the world. But favorites aside, losing to Seattle Pacific and squeaking by Humboldt State is not an auspicious start for a possible Pac-12 favorite or the nation’s #16 team.
So last night, with the dress rehearsals finally over, Wildcat nation and I watched with bated breath. Perhaps that’s hyperbole – bated breath feels like a March idiom – but make no bones about it, the many questions surrounding this team were quickly becoming concerns.
And the first half did little to address those concerns. The Wildcats were once again out-rebounded, turned the ball over too much, and had atrocious shot selection. Eventually they would settle in, tighten up their defense, and win the ball game. Coach Miller can be happy about some things. Not so much about others.
Here are five things I learned the first time I saw the 2011-12 Arizona Wildcats:
- The interior will be an issue – Any team would miss Derrick Williams but particularly this squad. I loved what I saw out of freshman Angelo Chol who appears to be a raw basketball player but is active and will make opponents work. Junior Kyryl Natyazkho has not developed as hoped and one has to believe his starting job could be in jeopardy. He still appears lost on the court at times which greatly hurts the Wildcats particularly as the starting center. And here’s a fact: this team is going to struggle defensively in the post. Senior Jesse Perry cannot carry the defensive load inside. Watching this game I couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of a Smith/Nelson/Wear tornado tossing the Wildcat bigs around. Someone is going to need to get better and quickly for this team to be able to get front court stops.
- The PG position is going to be OK – Whether its Turner or Mayes, both players will be wearing an Arizona jersey so the Wildcats stand to be just fine. Sure, at first glance Turner appeared shaky but I’m willing to give a freshman in November the benefit of the doubt when he’s had the type of program building pressure Turner’s had. Mayes, on the other hand, showed a steady hand and an ability to hit open shots, precisely what he (and any good point guard) will be asked to do. Mayes is still regaining his basketball legs following off season foot surgery and – like the rest of the team – will get better as the season unfolds. Also need to get this in there: Turner looks like he might erupt once he finds a comfort zone in this system.
- Going as the elders go – Arizona will no doubt depend on the progress of its talented freshman. But if seniors Jesse Perry and Kyle Fogg don’t play like seniors – that is to say consistently and confidently – this team will struggle to develop. Fogg will be looked to for leadership as he’s a four year starter and needs to improve on his slumped junior season (37% FGs). Perry will be asked to anchor an under-talented front court that (as previously stated) will need to fight for everything it gets. In the Wildcats’ first game, Perry managed to carry the ‘Cats through the first half (12 and 5) and Fogg came on in the second as the Wildcats pulled away. The two led the team in scoring, combining for 30 points between them. If these two can produce, expect the freshmen to have a much shorter learning curve.
- But they will be important – While Fogg and Perry will have a lot to do with this team staying afloat, the newcomers will control the team’s next-level success. Turner didn’t play well in game one but it is obvious to any observer that he has the talent to make this team go. Simply put: he’s bigger and stronger than the other kids. Nick Johnson is pure energy off the bench and is going to be a pest. An absolute pest. He’ll score and get stops and give the Wildcats some much needed scoring depth. Chol, like I said, will be a defensive asset who is going to learn a lot on the fly. Sidiki Johnson, well, no one quite knows yet especially considering Miller’s post-game comments.
- Parrom is missed – Kevin Parrom is expected back relatively soon but until then, this team will miss him. He’s arguably the best player on the team and Arizona needs his versatility. Because of their lack of front court depth, the ‘Cats will be forced to play a lot of small ball – three and maybe four guard sets. Parrom can and has played the two, three, and four for Sean Miller which will go a long way in helping the Wildcats defend when forced into a guard heavy lineup. The good news is that Parrom’s versatility won’t greatly disrupt Arizona’s flow upon his return. For now, the Wildcats will benefit some from having to play others in Parrom’s absence, but number 3 will make this team go.