5 things to watch when Arizona Basketball takes the floor in the month of November
Following a 17-win season marred by off-the-court drama and on the court injuries, Arizona and its highly-touted influx of freshmen and college transfers has a lot to play for when the 2019-2020 season begins November 6 against Northern Arizona. As a bonus, Arizona fans will get a sneak peak of their Wildcats this Friday when Chico State visits McKale Center for an exhibition game.
The non-conference slate is a good one, with a mix of proven mid-majors like New Mexico State and South Dakota State and national notables such as Illinois, Baylor, Gonzaga, and St. John’s. Before Arizona travels to the Greater Los Angeles Area to partake in the Wooden Legacy Tournament, I’ll be paying close attention to the following five things to determine if the Wildcats have a real shot at developing into a national power this season.
Nico Mannion and Josh Green
Even the most talented freshmen struggle at some point in the season. Some shine at home and fade on the road. Some get hot for a week or two then go dark for a month. The Wildcats won’t leave McKale Center until Thanksgiving Day, so there is time for the dynamic freshmen duo to get truly comfortable. However, comfort is not always a good thing as sometimes it takes a true road game early in the season for the light bulb to go on and realize that hoops at the collegiate level, even for the 5-star high school studs, is not as easy as the summer circuit of All Star events where fans and media are clamoring rather than criticizing. The big question I have is will Mannion and Green develop and ultimately jell together on the court, or take turns trading off big performances. Although, technically, Arizona does not need these guys to both have monster seasons, they kind of sort of do need to have big seasons if the Wildcats have any hope of contending for a Pac-12 title, returning to the NCAA Tournament, and actually advancing past the first weekend.
A common misconception of the Pack-Line Defense is it’s a sit back defense that smaller teams can utilize to protect the rim. In reality, true success is when a Pack-Line features quick, lanky, ball harassing defenders capable of not sacrificing an inch to jump shooters and ball handlers. Arizona features that level of size and quickness on this year’s club, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Wildcats can return to playing championship level defense, or the stuff fans have witnessed in recent seasons where Arizona has had to mask too many individually weak defenders being on the floor at once.
Physicality and Toughness
It’s not much of a debate determining whether or not the Wildcats have been tough since the days of T.J. McConnell and Aaron Gordon. They haven’t. Sure, there’s been some hard-nosed guys in the program since the days of back-to-back Elite Eight runs, but the team, overall, has not displayed the type of physicality and toughness a Miller-coached team should resemble. Granted, this not hockey, but there has to be an element of competitiveness that is rooted in a desire to gut your opponent by locking them down on defense, dunking on their heads, and leaving them fearful that battling you on the boards is going to hurt. Again, the physical make-up of this year’s club shows promise but it has to metastasize into something bigger, week after week and month after month.
Shooters vs. Scorers
Who are the shooters and who are the scorers. Without naming names, it’ll be easy to identify which Wildcats can flat out knock down shots and which of the players rely solely on their athleticism to score the basketball. Both have benefits, but shooters are needed to win significant games, particularly those on the road or in neutral settings. Defenses, and especially coaches, can sniff out when an opposing offense is feeling uncomfortable along the perimeter. Rather than pulling the trigger, the uncomfortable turn to the dribble with wasted motion that allows the entire defense to react and recover. Confident teams, or shooters, don’t hesitate to strike and deliver the dagger. At home, even average outside shooters can get hot. However, on the road, knocking down shots against a locked in defense fueled by a roaring fans is mission critical to winning.
Big or Small or the Perfect Mix
Arizona can play big this season, or they can play small. It’s a good sign of a well-rounded team. Still, if Arizona’s style of play is being dictated by the opponent, the Wildcats could underwhelm. Making adjustments as a result of foul trouble is one thing, but if Arizona has to constantly load the floor with guards and small forwards because they are struggling to defend smaller-sized teams, the Pack-Line might as well be a flat line. The good thing is Arizona fans will know what they have during non-conference play as it’s notorious for mid-major programs to lack overall size. What I’ll be looking for is the lateral quickness of Arizona’s big men, their ability to hedge on high screen action along the 3-point line, and their ability to retreat back to the paint to contest inside shots and secure rebounds on the move. I’m fully confident Chase Jeter can get the job done, no matter what the opponent looks like. However, his peers along the frontline will have much to prove.