With No. 1 Michigan State suffering a surprising home loss to North Carolina on Wednesday night, there were many Arizona fans who looked towards Saturday’s contest against UNLV with excitement. The renewal of a series that delivered some great moments during the time when Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson roamed the sidelines was something folks looked forward to. But the fact that a win would move the Wildcats to the top of the national polls for the first time in nearly a decade was what fired up the fan base.
Despite an off night from freshman Aaron Gordon (2-for-10, four points) four other Wildcats reached double figures and a fifth, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, flirted with a double-double as Arizona beat the Runnin’Rebels 63-58. Brandon Ashley and T.J. McConnell scored 13 points apiece to lead the way, with the point guard adding seven rebounds and six assists. However, even in victory there are concerns for a team that come Monday should see its name atop the major polls.
There were questions regarding who the shooters would be for Arizona, and Saturday’s game didn’t provide a positive answer. As a team the Wildcats shot 3-for-16 from beyond the arc, and one possible answer (Gabe York) saw just six minutes of action. In fact, head coach Sean Miller went with a six-man rotation for much of Saturday’s contest with Hollis-Jefferson (nine points, seven rebounds and six assists in 28 minutes) being the sixth man. Clearly that nucleus is talented enough to win a lot of games, but who within that group can consistently make perimeter shots?
Nick Johnson was responsible for nine of Arizona’s 16 three-point attempts but he made just two, and McConnell missed both of his shots. That puts the onus on a reserve like York to do what it takes to earn more playing time in games of this magnitude, with UNLV having the athletes needed to make things difficult for Arizona. Bryce Dejean-Jones led three Runnin’ Rebels in double figures with 16 points, and as a team UNLV shot 46% from the field. But Arizona’s rebounding (41-29 edge, and they rebounded 42.9% of their missed shots) and ability to score in the paint (44-22 margin) proved to be too much to overcome.
The question: will that six-man rotation be enough for Arizona as the season wears on, especially when facing some of the top teams in the Pac-12 (the NCAA tournament as well)? The Wildcats may have been able to do enough to hold off UNLV, but at some point down the line someone else’s name will be called. And how prepared that player is to contribute could make the difference between a good season and a special one.