This wasn’t the Sean Miller-built team like the last two years.
Arizona basketball of 2015-16 doesn’t intimidate with a starting lineup and then-some of NBA-caliber athletes, and it lost more clout in that regard when highly-regarded freshman Ray Smith’s season ended with an ACL injury. Starting center Kaleb Tarczewski’s injury further put Miller’s program in the back of people’s minds.
One win over Gonzaga and a seven-game winning streak heading into a 12-day break before facing rival Arizona State, and suddenly Arizona (12-1) looks every bit as imposing. Assuming the Sun Devils cap off a 10-3 start with a win over Cal State Bakersfield on Monday, it’s hard to imagine Bob Hurley’s first meeting against Miller and the Wildcats coming with greater anticipation from either perspective.
From Arizona’s end, there are several reasons to be most pleased heading into the New Year.
DIVERSITY ON OFFENSE
Tarczewski’s injury posed the Wildcats with a sudden problem on the defensive end. He was the leader and near-perfect backline decision-maker, but the emergence of replacement Dusan Ristic has added to Arizona’s impressive offensive arsenal.
Ristic has scored in double-figures in the last four games of a five-game homestand and hasn’t shot below 50 percent over the last six outings. That may have changed the way teams are defending the perimeter.
Coincidentally or not, the Wildcats, who are shooting just 31 percent from three-point range this year, have suddenly caught fire from deep.
Even with shooter Elliott Pitts missing the last five games, Arizona is hitting 39 percent on three-pointers over the last five games.
Add that to the dribble-drive abilities of Allonzo Trier, Kadeem Allen and others, the shooting from gunner Gabe York, and the low-post scoring from Ryan Anderson, and it’s a pick-your-poison type of offense.
The result? The Wildcats have been scoring in bunches, crossing the 80-point mark in five straight for the first time since the 2006-07 season under coach Lute Olson.
Last time before tonight? Start of 2006-07, Lute led 'em to 6-straight 80+ pt efforts. https://t.co/8r4xGRCwbk
— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) December 23, 2015
THEIR BEST SCORERS ARE THEIR MOST EFFICIENT
Anderson isn’t only keeping one of Miller’s less-athletic Arizona teams on the plus side on the glass — Arizona was nearly even with a big Gonzaga team and since has outrebounded opponents 239-160.
The Boston College transfer is leading Arizona with 16 points per game to go with his 10 rebounds.
He is doing so efficiently. Anderson is shooting 57 percent and hitting three-quarters of his 6.2 free throws per game, good for a true shooting percentage of 62 percent (true shooting accounts for threes and free throws). That’s not even best on the team.
Trier is tied for second in scoring with Gabe York (13.2 points per game) and despite shooting just 30 percent from three has a true shooting percentage of 63 percent.
THEY’RE ONLY GETTING HEALTHIER
As the starting lineup has sorted itself out, so has the bench. Forward Mark Tollefsen has found a scoring groove of late, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright has settled into a backup point guard role. More importantly, Miller’s shown confidence in freshmen Chance Comanche and Justin Simon for spurts.
The returns of Pitts, who is out with a personal issue, and Tarczewski will probably take the two freshman out of playing significant minutes and give Miller a true nine-deep rotation.
But for the time being, it’s safe enough where Arizona won’t feel the need to rush those two back.
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