Developing freshmen key to Arizona basketball's progression
Well, Arizona had to lose eventually, right?
I’m not sure I subscribe to the “getting a loss out of the way is good in the long run” theory, but if we learned anything from Thursday’s 70-66 loss to Oregon or an 80-70 win on Saturday against Oregon State, it’s that Arizona will at least have a chance to win every game.
Now, the Wildcats struggled against the Ducks, and they didn’t look like the fourth-best team in the country. For much of the game, Arizona didn’t even look like the fourth-best team in the Pac-12.
Oregon exploited the Wildcats’ biggest, glaring weaknesses — breaking a zone defense, defending the long ball — but it also showed how dangerous Arizona might be come March.
Today, Arizona will drop from its No. 4 ranking, probably as far as No. 8 or 9, and that’s fine. In reality, the Wildcats weren’t the fourth-best team in the nation. But they might be soon as we inch closer to the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.
Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson are consistent, safe and the surest bets on Arizona’s roster, and Kevin Parrom is close behind.
Mark Lyons might take a few ill-advised shots, and turn the ball over a bit much from the point guard position, but his scoring prowess and clutch free throw shooting might be the biggest reason Arizona started 14-0 in the first place.
Lyons, Johnson, Parrom and Hill are the Wildcats’ team leaders, but Arizona’s chances of going deep into March rests on the shoulders of its three youngest players.
No more evident than in the two-game Oregon road trip, Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski will be the difference makers for this year’s squad.
Last year, Arizona struggled because of a lack of height.
That’s not the only reason the Wildcats didn’t make the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, but starting a 6-foot-7 Jesse Perry at center often put the UA at an inherent disadvantage down low.
That’s changing with the emergence of the Wildcats’ talented young trio, despite their struggles Thursday night.
They combined to shoot 3-of-13 with seven points and 11 rebounds.
More than the other two, growing pains were expected for the 7-foot Tarczewski. As head coach Sean Miller has said, developing 7-footers is not an overnight process.
He has shown flashes of what he can do, and he’s easily the Wildcats’ best rebounder. If he can figure it out, and maybe not hold onto the ball so long, he gives Arizona a weapon not many teams can employ.
Jerrett and Ashley in particular have struggled lately.
Against Utah on Jan. 5, Miller benched Ashley for much of the second half because of some defensive struggles he said “any fan could see.”
But the 6-foot-8 Ashley has shown an impressive scoring ability.
He’s had 10 games of nine points or more and is shooting an impressive 56.4 percent from the field, but he also had six games of three points or less and turns the ball over a bit too much.
Entering the Oregon State game, though, Jerrett scored zero points against Oregon, zero against Utah and one against San Diego State — a 10-point effort against Colorado notwithstanding.
If Jerrett could utilize his length (he has a 7-foot-2 wingspan), and work from the inside out instead of the other way around to capitalize on his shooting ability, Arizona will be better for it.
Against Oregon State on Saturday, Hill made five three-pointers, Parrom two, Lyons had 16 points and five assists, while Johnson added 14 points, six rebounds and five assists of his own.
But, stellar play from the freshmen — less Tarczewski, more Jerrett and Ashley — was the key to Arizona’s first double-digit victory since a 19-point win against Miami on Dec. 23.
Ashley, who was benched in favor of Parrom against Oregon, returned to the starting lineup and made an efficient 6-of-8 shots, scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Jerrett only scored eight points, but hit two three-pointers, had five rebounds and swatted six shots.
Keep an eye on the progression of Ashley, Jerrett and Tarczewski because if their progression keeps in the right direction, Arizona might be a force to be reckoned with.