Long Beach State v Arizona

The biggest difference between this season and last on display as Arizona rolls

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TUCSON – To say the least the 2011-12 season for the Arizona Wildcats was one that didn’t go as expected. With four highly-touted freshmen and a few solid returnees, Sean Miller’s bunch was expected to contend for a Pac-12 title.

No need to rehash what happened despite being one win away from the NCAA tournament, but one of the big problems for that group was the fact that there weren’t many available solutions if something went wrong.

Three games into the 2012-13 season, it’s safe to say that won’t be an issue for this group (knock on wood).

Taking on a Long Beach State squad with just nine available players the Wildcats jumped the 49ers early, and another run in the second half put the game away as the Wildcats won 94-72.

Brandon Ashley, inserted into the starting lineup in place of fellow freshman Grant Jerrett, scored the first nine points of the game and finished with a game-high 20 points and ten rebounds for his first double-double as a Wildcat.

In total four Wildcats reached double figures and as a team Arizona shot 53.6% from the field, with 17 of their 30 field goals being assisted.

And just one game after out-rebounding UTEP by an dominant 35-15 margin, Arizona took advantage of Long Beach State’s rebounding issues to the tune of a 41-23 margin.

To say the least it was a good night for the Wildcats.

“We did some great things tonight,” said Miller. “Offensive I believe we got the ball inside better than we have in any of our games we’ve played. That’s a work in progress and I have no doubt we’ll continue to develop and get smoother at being able to do that.”

As noted above Long Beach State was down to just nine players, and it didn’t help matters that leading scorer James Ennis sat the first five-plus minutes as punishment for being late for the team bus.

But he was on the floor when Arizona put together their first run to establish a solid working margin, as they went on an 18-3 run to take a 37-16 lead with 7:10 remaining in the half.

From that point Arizona would lead by no fewer than 11 points, extended their lead to as many as 30 in the second half.

Senior wing Solomon Hill became the program’s 47th player to reach the 1,000-point mark and finished the game with 15 points, but the fact that he shot just 2-of-8 from the field (11-of-11 FT) didn’t matter. When you can go ten deep and have players like Kevin Parrom come off the bench and knock down four three-pointers, it becomes far easier to account for one player’s off night.

While Arizona certainly had stretches of excellent play there are things to work on, most notably their three-point defense. Long Beach State knocked down 14 shots from distance, essentially keeping the game from getting really out of hand.

“Giving up 14 threes is bad. It wasn’t that they got hot; they earned it,” noted Miller. “But it’s not just Long Beach. If you look at the two exhibition games and three regular season games we’ve played, that’s a problem right now.

“And with this break that’s a big focus for us, to be able to take away the three-point shot not at the expense of the other things we’re doing well but just [to] improve that.”

Defending the three isn’t an issue along the lines of what Arizona attempted to navigate last season, and when you’ve got ten talented players at your disposal it becomes easier to find answers to some of the issues that will pop up during games.

And given the youth of some of the players in the rotation, Arizona’s bound to get better as the season wears on.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.