Column: Arizona Wildcats find magic formula
Arizona’s loss to ASU on Valentine’s Day was rock bottom for the Wildcats.
Arizona only made 23 of its 64 shots and scored 66 points despite the game going into double overtime.
There were plenty of scapegoats, but junior point guard T.J. McConnell shouldered the blame after tallying only two assists and six turnovers.
“After ASU, I kind of took it personally,” McConnell said. “Six turnovers is really bad for a point guard.”
Sophomore forward Brandon Ashley watches the Wildcats from the sidelines during the first half of Arizona's 87-59 victory over Cal at McKale Center on Wednesday.
The floor general said he met with head coach Sean Miller, who told him to calm down and take care of the ball.
In Arizona’s 87-59 pounding of California on Wednesday night, McConnell had 13 points, six assists and more steals (three) than turnovers (one).
“T.J. is just a worker,” Miller said. “He’s tireless in his ability to try and do what we want him to do on defense and offense.”
Junior guard Nick Johnson was another UA leader who struggled at ASU, shooting 5-for-20 from the field. Against California, Johnson scored 22 points, two shy of his season high.
“Nick is playing as well right now as he has played all season long,” Miller said.
Johnson has regained the form that made him a national player of the year candidate, as TV analysts claimed.
“They’re making shots right now, and at our place they weren’t making their shots,” California head coach Mike Montgomery said Wednesday. “They’re playing really well right now.”
After the ASU game, it looked like Arizona couldn’t recover from the loss of sophomore starter Brandon Ashley, who made his last appearance for the season in the Wildcats fell at Cal on Feb. 1.
After the loss to the Sun Devils, Miller was asked about substituting more; it sounded as if he didn’t even consider it because of how bad the bench played.
“There’s nothing we can do; they didn’t sub a lot either,” Miller said following the loss at ASU on Feb. 14.
The bench scored zero points against ASU.
“We had to regroup. We lost a tough game at ASU, and I think we got over that,” Miller said Wednesday.
Arizona was pathetic offensively at ASU, but in the last two games the Wildcats have scored 175 points.
The combination of a now-high scoring offense with its already vaunting defense might have UA President Ann Weaver Hart starting to think about whether she would cancel class after a national championship.
“Our offense is continuing to develop,” Miller said. “I don’t think we have a bunch of shooters that are hot, as much as that we are playing well together; very few turnovers, lots of assists.”
The Wildcats experimented with freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson starting in place of Ashley, but the Wildcats scored just 209 points in three games with that lineup.
Since moving to a three-guard rotation on Feb. 19 at Utah, when Miller substituted guard Gabe York into the opening rotation instead of forward Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats have found their grove.
Hollis-Jefferson’s energy provides a great boost off of the bench. In the rout of Cal, he had 12 points and 10 rebounds, better stats than every Golden Bear. Right before he came in, Arizona was actually trailing.
The Wildcats are turning defense into offense; they forced 14 turnovers and scored 11 points off of them, usually in a spectacular fashion.
“I think we’re definitely starting to get back into a groove,” sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “We’re just trying to get better every day.”
Now it looks like the Wildcats are poised to lock down the No. 1 seed.
ESPN personality Dick Vitale tweeted: “If Arizona doesn’t ‘t lose B Ashley during the yr due to injury. @UACoachMiller Wildcats would be best in the USA.”
With Ashley, the Wildcats were clearly the best team in the country, but after sweeping the daunting Rocky Mountain trip and routing California, Arizona has the look of the top rank team again.
Even when the Wildcats were No. 1, they were winning a lot of close games before finally falling at Cal.
Now Arizona is playing so well that it is able to use the bench even more, using the walk-ons against strong teams like Cal and Colorado.
—Follow James Kelley @jameskelley520