Evaluating the Arizona Wildcats at Pac-12’s midway point
If someone told you before the season that the Arizona Wildcats would be 19-2 with a 7-2 mark in the Pac-12, chances are you would have had some doubts but taken that production.
After all, that record is good enough to have Sean Miller’s team ranked 7th in the country, and with an RPI of 4, the Wildcats have the look of a top seed come March. In his latest bracketology, Jerry Palm has Arizona as a two-seed out West. Yet, there are still quite a bit of doubters with this team, but that’s all for a couple months down the road.
In the meantime, since it is the midway point in the Pac-12 season and all, we figured it makes sense to break down how Arizona’s key players have done thus far.
Brandon Ashley – Ashley came into the year as one of two McDonald’s All-Americans in this season’s recruiting class, and his non-conference play reminded some of a young Derrick Williams. A 6-foot-8, 235 pound forward, Ashley averaged 8.7 points in Arizona’s first 12 games, but has seen that number drop to 6.9 per night since Pac-12 play started. His rebounding has also dipped, as he pulled down 6.5 boards per game in non-conference play but is grabbing just 4.89 boards per game in Pac-12 games.
Angelo Chol – Big things were expected of Chol in his sophomore season, but the 6-foot-9 forward has seen action in just 18 of 21 games and is averaging fewer than 8 minutes per contest. Some of that can be attributed to Arizona’s freshman class, which features a trio of post players, but at the same time Chol has not progressed the way many hoped he would. The Wildcats may not have needed him so far, but his athleticism and shot blocking ability could be important as the season goes on, especially if the freshmen don’t improve.
Solomon Hill – A preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, Solomon Hill has been every bit as good as expected, even if his overall numbers are a bit underwhelming. The senior has reached double figures in scoring in 17 of the team’s 21 games, and has picked up his production since conference play started. His overall numbers of 13.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game will not ‘wow’ anyone, but his steady and heady play is invaluable to an inconsistent team. Often times you find yourself wanting Hill to be more assertive with his shot, but he seems to pick his spots (vs. San Diego State, at Arizona State) wisely.
Grant Jerrett – The other McDonald’s All-American in this year’s class, Jerrett’s season has been incredibly inconsistent. Playing at both forward and center for the team, the 6-foot-10 big man’s advantage is his ability to hit from three-point range, though that shot seems to come and go. Jerrett is averaging just 4.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, and has reached double figures in scoring just three times. However, while his shot has abandoned him in Pac-12 play (27 percent), his defense (14 blocked shots) and rebounding (4.44 per game) have kept him in the rotation over the last nine games.
Nick Johnson – The Wildcats needed Johnson to take a big step forward as a sophomore, and he’s done exactly that. The 6-foot-3 guard who spent much of last season running the point has been able to play his natural shooting guard this year, and the results have been excellent. Johnson has scored double figures in 17 of 21 games and is shooting .465 from the field (.352 from three point range). He’s averaging 13.0 points per contest while also pulling down 3.8 rebounds per game and dishing out 2.8 assists, so he’s productive all across the board. However, it’s Johnson’s defense that may be most important, with his most notable and recent conquest of Washington’s C.J. Wilcox (11 points on 4-16 shooting) was key in Arizona defeating the Huskies in Washington for the first time since 2007.
Mark Lyons – Few Arizona players have been as polarizing as the Xavier transfer. On one hand, Lyons is leading the team with 14.9 points per game (16.89 in conference), plays excellent defense and has hit big shots in wins against Florida and Colorado. On the other hand, he’s shooting .426 from the field, has tallied one or fewer assists five times, and has been a turnover machine in Pac-12 play. At the end of the day, though, the Wildcats would certainly be worse off without Lyons’ ability to score and his late-game toughness, and if the ‘Cats are going to do anything special this season it will be their fifth-year senior who leads the way.
Jordin Mayes – As far as careers go, Mayes’ has to be one of the more disappointing. A solid freshman season was followed by an injury-riddled sophomore campaign, and it was hoped a healthy Mayes would be productive as a junior. He hasn’t been. The backup point guard is averaging just 2.7 points and 1.2 assists per game while shooting a miserable .328 from the field and .257 from three point range. He’s scored in double figures just once this season — in the opener against Charleston Southern — and has been losing minutes as the season has progressed, seeing fewer than 10 in three of nine Pac-12 games.
Kevin Parrom – Few Arizona players have gone through as much as Kevin Parrom, and for a while it seemed like the adversity produced a very good, hard-working player. Parrom’s non-conference play was outstanding, as he averaged 8.9 points per night, but has seen that number (as well as his shooting percentage) slip over the last nine. His frustration came to a head Saturday against Washington State, where he was ejected in the first half for a flagrant foul. Parrom, upset with what he thought was a cheap shot, threw an elbow at Cougars guard DaVonte Lacy. It was a poor decision by the senior, who left the team shorthanded as it was attempting to get a tough road win. Whether or not Parrom will be suspended or face any extra disciplinary action, the Wildcats will need their sixth man to pick up his play going forward.
Kaleb Tarczewski – Arizona has not had a true center in a while, and while Tarczewski has not dominated as a freshman, you can certainly see why he was one of the country’s top five recruits. The 7-footer is posting a line of 6.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, but has shown real progress over the last couple of weeks. “Zeus” has scored 10 points in each of his last three games, and as long as he can stay out of foul trouble (averaging 2.5 per game) his size gives Arizona a real presence down low.
Gabe York – The forgotten member of Arizona’s 2013 recruiting class, the 6-foot-2 York is starting to find his way into the rotation. Known for his shooting ability more than anything else, York has only seen action in 11 games. However, he’s played in each of the last three, and as long as he can make shots you have to think Miller will find a consistent role for him going forward.
The Wildcats are very much in the race to win the Pac-12 regular season championship, as they are tied with Oregon (though a game back due to tiebreakers). But while winning the conference is a goal, this team will ultimately be judged by how it does in March.
Arizona certainly has the talent to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, as their top 10 ranking and big wins would attest to. But inconsistency from the freshmen as well as Lyons gives the team a bit of a “Jekyll and Hyde” feel, and it’s tough to feel confident that great things are in store for this group.
But with a favorable-looking schedule to finish the season — including five of the final nine games being at McKale Center — the expectation should be for the ‘Cats to finish the regular season strong, win a few games in the Pac-12 Tournament and enter March Madness with a mid-20s win total and some momentum.