TUCSON, Arizona — For all the questions surrounding the Pac-12 and its lack of a dominant team, the two-time defending regular season champions may very well be the best bet to take the crown in 2015-16.
No. 13 Arizona may not have the projected lottery picks that they’ve had in each of the last two seasons, but they’re still talented and do have both depth and versatility. Those attributes were on display Saturday night as they beat UNLV 82-70 for their 46th consecutive home victory, doing so despite turning the ball over 18 times with 14 coming in the second half.
Dusan Ristic, whose role has grown in importance due to both the loss of Brandon Ashley and the injury suffered by senior center Kaleb Tarczewski, scored a game-high 20 points and he was efficient in doing so. Not only did Ristic shoot 6-for-8 from the field, but he also shook off his struggles from the foul line by making seven of his eight attempts.
The sophomore may have had just two rebounds on the night, but his ability to score in the post (and even making a three-pointer) was something the Runnin’ Rebels struggled to deal with in the first half. And he’s played well enough to this point to open up some new possibilities for Arizona when Tarczewski returns to the court.
“He’s getting a chance to show what he does every day,” Arizona senior forward Ryan Anderson said of Ristic. “He’s one of our hardest workers, and his skill around the basket is something that can’t really teach and you saw it tonight. He stepped out and made a three and a couple jumpers, but his game around the basket is really unmatched by many people in the country.
“His thing is just getting a chance to play and getting comfortable in our system, and I think as our season continues this time without Kaleb is going to help [Dusan] and our team.”
In Arizona’s last three games Ristic has averaged 14.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and two blocks per game, shooting 68.4 percent from the field. Against UNLV 16 of his 20 points came in the first half, and as a team Arizona scored 26 of its 44 points in the paint. Whether it was post entry feeds or dribble penetration, Arizona was able to penetrate the UNLV defense on a consistent basis.
The Runnin’ Rebels did a better job of closing driving lanes in the second half, and their move to a smaller lineup made necessary by Stephen Zimmerman aggravating a thigh injury suffered in practice earlier in the week was a factor as well. But even with those improvements there was also the issue of defending without fouling for the visitors.
Arizona shot 29-for-39 from the foul line, and their 19-point advantage was one of the key differences between the two teams. In Ristic and Ryan Anderson (17 points, 13 rebounds) the Wildcats have two big men who can get points in the low post, and they also have a guard in Allonzo Trier capable of breaking teams down off the dribble. Each of Arizona’s starters attempted at least five free throws against UNLV, with Ristic and Anderson (11) responsible for 19 of those 39 attempts.
The Wildcats had an advantage in the front court and they took advantage, with Ristic and Anderson producing quality performances as a result.
“I think when you have Dusan and Ryan and they’re active and on the glass, and they’re getting the ball deep…I think we did a good job at times of getting them the ball,” Miller said. “I wish we could have got it to them more, and they could have been even more effective. That’s where our advantage against UNLV was.”
Five Wildcats scored in double figures Saturday night, with Trier and Kadeem Allen adding 15 apiece and Gabe York 11. The question for Arizona will be how they manage the turnovers, especially with their use of both Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright at the point. The Wildcats committed just four in the first half, but 14 in the second half allowed UNLV to pull to within three with just under eight minutes remaining.
This group doesn’t have the margin for error that they did the last two seasons, and they don’t have the security of knowing that they have a clear answer at the point in T.J. McConnell. How Arizona manages the basketball will be critical in a conference that doesn’t have much (if any) separation at the top. And their head coach is confident that the Wildcats have the ability to take better care of the basketball on a consistent basis.
“Fourteen turnovers in the second half is why you leave the game maybe not feeling the way you’d want to after a big home win,” Miller noted. “Our turnovers came in a number of different areas; Gabe and Kadeem combined for ten and that’s not good.”
“When you turn the ball over the way we did [in the second half] any team on our schedule can beat us,” Miller continued. “The good news is, if we can become that team, and I know we can, where we can play a whole 40 minutes with single digits (in turnovers) I believe we can beat anybody. And it’s no more complicated than ‘how much will we improve our turnovers from this point on.'”