Arizona basketball needs freshmen to emerge
Exactly 370 days ago, Arizona forward Brandon Ashley and UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad battled in a high-profile basketball game.
The jerseys they wore boasted their high schools’ colors, not the red and blue of Arizona or the powder blue and gold of UCLA that Ashley and Muhammad will respectively don tonight when they meet again at 7 p.m. in McKale Center.
Ashley’s No. 3 Findlay Prep bested its rival No. 16 Bishop Gorman 73-61 in Las Vegas and limited Muhammad, the nation’s top recruit, to 19 points in a poor shooting night. The results of the high school clash, though, are eerily reminiscent of the way this college basketball season has played out.
It’s hard to complain about a 16-1 start to the season for the Wildcats, and the vaunted recruiting class of Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski has played a big role in that record.
Tyler Besh / Arizona Daily Wildcat Men's basketball vs ASU #35 Kaleb Tarczewski
Still, compared to the immediate on-court success of UCLA’s three freshman stars, the Arizona youngsters have been more or less disappointing.
They’re not busts or flops and considering the UA’s surrounding talent, they’ve done exactly what’s required of them. However, they haven’t contributed anything more.
At times, Ashley’s played like a top-level freshman. He put up 20 points and 10 rebounds against Long Beach State, scored 16 points and snagged 10 boards against East Tennessee State and is shooting 54 percent from the field.
Tarczewski’s had two 13 rebound games this season and has avoided foul trouble well for a freshman big man.
On the flip side, he’s also shooting 37 percent in Pac-12 play despite being 7-foot, and he went without a point or rebound in a marquee matchup with San Diego State.
Out of the three, Jerrett’s been the most disappointing. His minutes are a reflection of that, as he’s played the least of the three with 17.9 minutes a game. His 37.8 percent shooting from distance isn’t too shabby, but he also hasn’t scored in three of the five Pac-12 games, although his six blocks against Oregon State were a nice reminder of his talent.
A simple box score ignores the defensive and rebounding impact the added size has given the Wildcats. Arizona is fifth in the nation in rebounding margin and 79th in field goal percentage defense.
The freshmen are pounding the glass and allowing the older players to take care of the scoring. Against Arizona State, Ashley’s defense was part of the reason ASU forward Carrick Felix played miserably.
Then again, Ashley only played 17 minutes in the game; Felix played all 40.
Arizona has added a lot, especially compared to last year’s team. The big three just haven’t played like top-15 recruits.
The underwhelming play of the freshmen frontcourt really comes to light with the Bruins in town. Muhammad and freshman Jordan Adams are first and second on the Bruins in scoring, with 17.9 and 15.2 points per game, respectively. Point-forward Kyle Anderson is averaging 9.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
None of the three Arizona freshmen are averaging more than 7.8 points or 6.0 rebounds per game.
“Shabazz [Muhammad] is warrior,” head coach Sean Miller said. “He plays like an older player. He lets the game come to him … He’s one of the best players we’ll play against and he’s continuing to improve on defense. He’s a great, great player.”
The roles of Muhammad and the Arizona freshmen are in no ways the same, but through the first 17 games of the season, the Wildcat frontcourt has done nothing to garner glowing praise like that.
They’ve just done the dirty work in the background.
The Wildcats don’t need to get huge offensive production from the freshmen, though it wouldn’t hurt. They’re rebounding the ball well, but so is senior Solomon Hill, with his 5.4 rebounds per game.
Their defensive contribution is also a huge give and take — the Wildcats are defending the interior much better this season, but teams are hitting 36.6 percent of their threes against the Wildcats. That puts them at 298th in the nation at defending the three; Arizona was No. 3 the last two seasons.
Ashley’s on-ball defense against ASU’s Felix is exactly what Arizona needs from the freshmen, but not what it’s been getting consistently. Still, the freshmen are filling their roles. Findlay Prep beat Bishop Gorman last season because Ashley’s team was better than Muhammad’s.
With what the Wildcats are getting from the frontcourt, Arizona has performed like one of the best teams in the nation. If it wants to be the best team in the nation, though, the freshman big men need to start showing why they were so heavily recruited in the first place.