Arizona is 25-3 overall and 14-1 in the Pac-12 Conference. Who would have ever thought that was possible in November or December when the Wildcats were taking hit after hit to its roster?
But as one college basketball analyst said this weekend, Sean Miller coached what he had and went with it.
There was no pity party.
Never mind Allonzo Trier would eventually be out 19 games, coming back in mid-January to what people thought would stabilize the team. Gone was junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright for what turned out to be six games with a high ankle sprain. There was the absence of senior Kadeem Allen for three games and the one-plus Dusan Ristic has been out. Allen and Ristic are expected back this week.
Miller often mentions how resilient his team has been.
Not all games have been pretty but they’ve been effective enough to get Arizona to be the No. 4 team in the nation and a couple of games away from winning the Pac-12 title. Of course, there are still lots of games to be played with each being a slippery slope to the top.
As Kobi Simmons said on Monday afternoon in UA’s weekly press conference, “every win” has been impressive. No one game sticks out and no one is more important than the next.
To be honest, however, that victory over UCLA showed what UA could do.
“We fight together and stick together through everything,” said Simmons. “Players come up big and we come out with wins. That’s impressive with what we’ve been through.”
There has been talk – it started last month – that Miller has done such a good job he should be the leading candidate for college basketball coach of the year. More talk should come this weekend when ESPN’s College Game Day comes to town.
Time will tell how it all plays out. But time has certainly helped Arizona get to this point in as much as Miller had to figure out how life would be without Ray Smith (who retired from basketball after suffering his third knee injury in early November). Then there was the adjustment without Trier after his PED suspension.
Had someone told Miller Arizona would go through all its issues in November, what would he have thought?
“I would have said we would not be in the NCAA tournament,” Miller said Monday. “You have no idea how talented your incoming freshman are (or are going to be). You don’t have any idea of how coachable they are until you are with them every day.”
It turned out they are very coachable. In fact, Lauri Markkanen (857), Rawle Alkins (806) and Simmons (800) lead the team in minutes played. They are three of the team’s top four scorers, with Trier No. 2.
“(They’ve) been the three constants on this years team,” Miller said. “You don’t think about that usually because freshmen are the hardest ones to make consistent.”
But they’ve not missed a practice and have not missed a game.
“They are a big reason why we’ve been able to fight through all this adversity and obstacles,” Miller said. “That says a lot about their talent. It’s hard to predict how it’s going to go.”
And who would have predicted how UA’s team would be on the perimeter? Not since 1997 and 1998 has Arizona had this many scorers and/or options on the perimeter. Back then it was Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon.
Twenty years later, it’s Markkanen, Simmons, Trier, Jackson-Cartwright and Alkins. It’s clearly Miller’s best group on the perimeter. Miller pointed out on Monday the team is shooting more than 40 percent (41 percent) from beyond the 3-point line in Pac-12 play.
“At one point you would have never predicted that would be the case,” Miller said. “(But) we were always playing without one or two of our best 3-point shooters.
“That’s something that is beneficial to us as we face zone defenses. We played Oregon and they got so hot from the 3-point line that there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. It’s nice to have that as a weapon on your side where on a given night we could have four or five guys who can make threes.
“Let’s hope that we have one of those nights.”