Even before Brandon Ashley was lost for the season with a foot injury, the Arizona Wildcats were having their share of offensive struggles.
In a win over Stanford, they scored 60 points while shooting 36 percent from the field. Before that, they knocked off Utah with 65 points on 40 percent shooting, but made just three of 14 attempts from three-point range.
But of course, the Wildcats were winning, and pointing attention to struggles like that comes off as nit-picking when a team is undefeated and ranked number one in the country.
Then Ashley went down against California, leading the narrative to change.
Suddenly, Arizona was a team struggling on offense that was now going to have to play without its second-leading scorer and third-best rebounder. The Wildcats were still talented, but Ashley’s ability to make shots outside of the paint was sure to be missed.
And it was.
Save for an offensive explosion in a home win over a dreadful Oregon State team, in which Arizona made half its shots, the team simply couldn’t shoot, with percentages of 32.3 against Cal, 40.0 against Oregon, 35.9 against Arizona State and 42.9 against Utah.
But it was in the Utah game – a 67-63 overtime win – where Arizona went to a bit of a different look.
Instead of starting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in place of Ashley, which had been the case the previous three games, coach Sean Miller turned to sophomore guard Gabe York.
The results have been positive, to say the least.
Wednesday against the Utes, the Wildcats got off to a fast start on the offensive end, going up 30-20 with 3:35 left in the first half on a three-pointer from York. The lead stretched as high as 11 in the first half and 12 in the second before foul trouble and rebounding issues stopped the momentum.
When it was all over, and the Wildcats had escaped with a four-point OT win, the box score showed a team that shot 42.9 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from three-point range.
In his second start — and first since Ashley went down — York scored 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-6 from three-point range. Back in a role off the bench, Hollis-Jefferson scored 13 points and added four rebounds, one assists, one steal and one block.
“We wanted to give Gabe an opportunity at the beginning,” Miller said after the game. “Sometimes, if you give a guy a fresh opportunity they play with more confidence. It ended up working — he shot the ball like he’s capable.”
All in all the game was a step in the right direction, but then Saturday in Colorado, the Wildcats appeared to take a giant leap forward in a 88-61 thumping of the Buffaloes.
As a team, Arizona shot a blistering 60.3 percent from the field. The ‘Cats made 8-of-17 three-point attempts. Twenty-four of the team’s made baskets were assisted on, and Arizona only turned the ball over six times.
It was the most points Arizona had scored since a 91-68 win over Arizona State in mid-January, and the fourth-highest total the team has scored all season.
Miller wouldn’t attribute to the success solely to the change in the starting lineup, crediting the increased use of his bench — mainly freshman guard Elliott Pitts — for the turnaround.
The four-star recruit played 13 minutes in each of the two games and scored a total of six points on two three-pointers. The totals may be modest, but the impact of having another shooter on the floor cannot be understated.
“Those guys can shoot the basketball and it’s not just when they take a shot or make one, but just their presence and in the known that they have the ability to do so gives you a little bit better spacing, and I think it allows, really, our entire team to be at our best on offense,” Miller said Monday.
And it wasn’t just York and Pitts who contributed, as Nick Johnson, who had made just 15 of his previous 60 shot attempts heading into the road trip, connected on 12 of 25 attempts over the two games. The 20 points he scored Saturday were the most he’s had in a game in nearly one month.
The success of the guards led to easier nights for the team’s bigs, as center Kaleb Tarczewski, forward Aaron Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson combined to shoot 17-of-25 from the field for 40 points against Colorado, with Gordon accounting for a career-best 23.
Are the Wildcats officially back?
It would be foolish to say their offensive woes are over because they busted out against Colorado, but at the very least, Arizona showed the potential is there for games like that.