Arizona basketball unofficially opened their season monday night with an 84-52 exhibition victory over Augustana College. After looking sloppy in past years in early season exhibition contests, the Wildcats rode newcomer T.J. McConnell (12 pts, 8 ast, 3 stl, 0 TO) and returnees Nick Johnson (14 pts, 3 ast) and Gabe York (14 pts) to an impressive victory over the DII 22nd-ranked Vikings.
Obviously one must not be quick to overreact to the results of an exhibition game, but Monday’s action offered both positive and negative aspects that are worth reflecting on as the 2013-14 season tips off in the coming weeks.
1. The play of G T.J. McConnell-
WOW. There really is not much else to say other than that.
I mentioned in my season preview that I expected McConnell to step in and lead from day one, but I never expected to see him dominate in that fashion so quickly. McConnell was everywhere and did everything on Monday night. He took charge in the first half, scoring all 12 of his points before the break and disrupting the early offensive flow of Augustana to the tune of three steals. He was on the floor a handful of times and was a magician in the open court, setting up both Johnson and Brandon Ashley for highlight reel finishes in transition.
However, his most impressive stat (and probably most important) had to be the zero turnovers. With the perceived shooting woes of this club well documented, it will be important for Arizona to maximize their every possession and get a shot each time down, and McConnell protecting the ball will go a long way to providing Arizona’s primary scorers with open looks.
McConnell could have had 10+ assists on the night but there were some instances where ‘Zona shooters simply missed open shots, a feat that is not uncommon so early in the season. I would be surprised to see McConnell continue to dominate like he did tonight all year long, but he certainly showed he is capable of being a starting guard on a contending team.
2. The scoring ability of G Gabe York-
Finally! It seemed like all last year Arizona fans longed for York to not only get more playing time, but to contribute in a big way. Last season didn’t play out the way York had hoped, but all reports say he spent the summer in Tucson working very hard on his game and it really showed tonight. York poured in 14 points on only nine shots, and, most importantly, shot the ball with supreme confidence. Even his misses were right on line and rattled in and out.
I truly believe both York and Jordin Mayes will be a huge determining factor as to how far this team can go, and based on their play tonight (Mayes was solid, albeit not eye-popping) I can say I have a good deal of confidence in them going forward.
3. Arizona’s team defense-
In my opinion, this will be the strong point of this team. Arizona managed to hold Augustana to 52 points on 30% shooting, and for the most part was dominating on the defensive end. McConnell completely changed the momentum of the game early in the first half with a steal and layup followed by a drawn charge on the following possession. The Cats finished with 8 blocks and 12 steals, almost all of which seemed to lead to fastbreak opportunities.
I loved how Arizona employed a “half” full court press as well. By simply picking up full court and making it a challenge to get over the center line it takes the offense out of their normal flow of the game and shaves about 7-8 seconds off the shot clock, making it much more difficult to get quality looks against Arizona’s length. I personally thought they should have used this strategy last year, as it really helps the team get their legs under them and can help battle the slow starts that have plagued the team in years past.
Most importantly, Arizona was able to use their defense to jump start their offense. With so many athletes capable of guarding multiple positions and capable of finishing in transition, Miller should really be able to apply pressure on defense and use that to create easy opportunities. This would help negate some of Arizona’s drawbacks on the offensive end, such as the lack of ability for some to create quality shots against a set defense.
4. The outside shooting-
Although they only shot 35% (7-20), I am speaking for to the quality of shots they got from deep. Most of their missed shots from three came from looks that were WIDE open, and I am very confident that as the season wears on the the players are able to get their legs under them they will hit 50% of the shots they had tonight. Obviously 50% is unheard for a season, but I am merely saying that if they continue to get the type of open shots they had tonight, they are more than capable of knocking them down.
Last note on this: Kaleb Tarczewski did a fantastic job of passing out of the post tonight. He set up about 4-5 open shots and will need to be a willing passer this year for Arizona to reach their potential.
5. Team depth-
A quality I loved early in the year last year but did not necessarily pan out as hoped, this year’s edition of the Wildcats could possibly go 11 deep (if Peters ever gets cleared) and have quality subs who can contribute when called upon. This will allow everyone to stay fresh and also allow for higher pressured defense, something the Cats could really excel at if need be.
THE (for the joy of nitpicking) BAD:
Tying the rebounding battle (39-39) to a DII school when you have arguably one of the best frontcourts in the nation is a bit disappointing. That being said, Augustana shot 25 threes, and that always leads to long and sometimes fluky rebounds. Nevertheless, offensive rebounds KILLED Arizona in big games last year (looking at you, UCLA), and even in this game Augustana was able to convert offensive rebounds to points multiple times. With the quality of big men this year in the PAC12, it is imperative for Arizona to shore things up here.
2. Freshman shot selection-
As I mentioned earlier, it is too early to overreact to certain things, but it is worth mentioning that both Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson struggled to find any rhythm in the offense in this one. Both players seemed to press a little bit, as it seemed like there were a few “me” possessions where they had not had a shot in awhile and simply took shots early in the shot clock that I wouldn’t call great shots, but that is to be expected with freshmen, no matter how fantastic they may be.
RHJ in my opinion was also bailed out on some calls going to the hoop where he ended up drawing fouls but really was in no position to do any damage, and you have to figure against higher competition he will not be able to bully his way to the basket and into calls like he did tonight.
AG also was rumored to have strained a groin muscle early in the game and sat most of the second half, here is hoping to a quick recovery, and I would not mind seeing him take it easy out of the gates just to be sure.
All in all, both of these guys contribute in so many ways that it is almost unfair to question their shot selection, but on 15 combined attempts, with probably more coming per game in the future, it is very important that they (and everyone in general) do not give away possessions by taking hurried shots early in the shot clock, especially with an able guard in McConnell who can set people up so well.
3. Big man foul trouble-
Ashley and Tarczewski both finished with four personal fouls each in only 26 and 21 minutes respectively. I know last year these two had problems with face up big men who can shoot the ball a little bit, which happened to be exactly who Augustana had, but they still need to use caution when defending away from the basket, Ashley especially. With how effective and potentially dominating these two are on the court together it goes without saying they must stay out of foul trouble, but if worse comes to worse Arizona has guys in Matt Korcheck, AG and RHJ who are capable of filling in down low defensively for spells.
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