Arizona Basketball

Top 5 observations of Arizona Wildcats’ victory over Mount St. Mary’s

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Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with one of his five dunks, an alley-oop slam in the second half (Pac-12 Networks screen shot)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with one of his five dunks, an alley-oop slam in the second half (Pac-12 Networks screen shot)

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Top 5 observations of Arizona’s 78-55 victory over Mount St. Mary’s while wondering if Kevin O’Neill knows something Sean Miller doesn’t about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s missed practice time. …

5. Yes, O’Neill, Stanley Johnson started because of Hollis-Jefferson’s missed practice time.

Being a former college coach, O’Neill ought to know that coaches at that level make personnel decisions based on practice. Chemistry means the difference between wins and losses. Those who practice, and work hard for more minutes, should get their shot.

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The NBA, also where O’Neill coached, may allow a starter a break from practice from time to time and not affect any roles. Miller runs a tighter ship.

If reports are true, and no reason exists that Miller and Arizona are covering something up, Johnson started against Mount St. Mary’s because Hollis-Jefferson missed practice time because of the tweaked shoulder.

O’Neill was not convinced, making the point that if Hollis-Jefferson sat the entire game, he would understand the benching in favor of Johnson because of the injury.

“I don’t care if he tweaked his brain, he wants to play,” O’Neill said.

4. Hollis-Jefferson played like the Pac-12’s top NBA prospect.

O’Neill commented that Hollis-Jefferson is the Pac-12’s top overall NBA prospect because of his explosiveness around the basket and athleticism on defense. NBA scouts talk about a player’s motor. Hollis-Jefferson’s motor is like a turbocharged diesel.

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Kaleb Tarczewski with one of his three blocked shots (Pac-12 Networks screen shot)

Kaleb Tarczewski with one of his three blocked shots (Pac-12 Networks screen shot)

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Five of Hollis-Jefferson’s six field goals were via the dunk, most of them of the highlight variety. Two of his dunks following a steal by himself and T.J. McConnell helped fuel a 12-0 knockout run to end the first half.

Arizona went from leading 28-25 with 3:21 left in the first half to closing with a 40-25 lead at the break.

Hollis-Jefferson finished with three steals and two blocked shots to go along with his 6 of 8 shooting from the field. If he can correct his free-throw shooting (3 of 7) and nail a mid-range jumper consistently he will be much more dangerous. Must be noted that his seven free-throw attempts led the Wildcats, indicative of his relentless activity around the basket.

3. Missing free throws like turnovers.

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Miller commented after the game missing free throws in succession is like turnovers.

The Wildcats had only eight turnovers, but they missed 13 free throws in 25 attempts. Aaron Gordon is not around any more to poke fun. Arizona played like Gordon in microcosm — dominating and explosive enough to overcome the details of free-throw shooting.

Those free throws will come back to bite the Wildcats in a tight game. Miller compared missing four to six free throws in succession to turning the ball over. Arizona missed four straight in the first half to start 2 of 8 from the free-throw line.

“We’re a much better free throw shooting team than we showed,” Miller told Brian Jeffries in the radio postgame interview. “You kind of sense that we needed to get through a game hopefully playing better throughout.”

2. Miller wants T.J. McConnell to shoot more.

The first question you may ask is why? He’s the point guard, right? Miller knows that to keep the defense honest and not pack it in against Arizona’s inside threat, the primary ball-handler must show he can nail the jump shot.

“T.J. McConnell is our team’s best shooter, but he hasn’t shown it yet,” Miller said in his post-game press conference.

McConnell tied for the team-high with 10 field goal attempts, making only three. Brandon Ashley, coming off last year’s season-ending foot injury, also tried 10 shots and made nine to finish with a career-high 21 points.

Miller wants McConnell to let the shots fly within the structure of the offense, especially against teams that may have size against Arizona. Mount St. Mary’s is not an example of that type of team.

Nine of Arizona’s 31 field goals — almost 33 percent — were dunks. Arizona outscored the Mountaineers 40-16 inside the paint and dominated in fast-break points, 19-0.

Arizona’s biggest three threats around the basket — Hollis-Jefferson, Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski — made a combined 20 of 24 attempts from the field.

The Wildcats could thrive in this type of game with McConnell struggling from the field. As Miller suggests, they will need him more as the season goes along.

1. Arizona really 22-0 over last two years with Ashley playing start to finish.

The Wildcats started 21-0 last year with Ashley playing every game from the opening tip to the ending buzzer as a starter. Add another win to the streak.

Arizona lost at Cal on Feb. 1 after Ashley went down with the season-ending injury three minutes into the game.

“That was quite possibly the best game he’s played at Arizona,” Miller told Jeffries. “What better thing to happen to him than the first time he’s played in front of our crowd … for him to go 9 of 10 from the field, 21 points, two steals. … He was the best player on the court tonight.”

Ashley and three others (Gabe York, McConnell and Tarczewski) each logged a team-high 28 minutes. Miller said he wants to be careful with Ashley’s minutes coming off his injury. Arizona plays again Sunday against Cal State Northridge.

“The No. 1 thing is he’s healthy and we have to keep him healthy,” Miller told Jeffries. “We have to be smart here in this early stretch, not because he is more at risk, but knowing how far he’s come.

“We have to be smart with him … We’re at the beginning of a long marathon here and for him to be healthy from start to finish is one of the things we’re hoping for.”

ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.

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