You can easily trace the Arizona Wildcats’ unique teamwork this season to the infectious pass-first nature of point guard T.J. McConnell, the all-around leadership of veteran Nick Johnson, or even the humility of heavily decorated freshman Aaron Gordon.
But it’s also possible to reverse-engineer the chemistry behind the Wildcats’ school-record 17-0 start by looking in the most subtle of places.
On Sunday, almost lost in UA’s 20-point win at USC, was the fact that center Kaleb Tarczewski took only one field goal, smothered by the Trojans’ zone defense and somewhat overlooked by his teammates.
“If you watched the game, you would have never known he was out there with only one shot attempt,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “A year ago, you would have been able to hear him in the huddle, in the locker room, you would have been able to see it on his face.
“But some of what we’re experiencing to this point is unselfishness, guys maturing, guys knowing we’re really trying to win, and everything else will take care of itself.”
That maturity is one of the end results of what’s helped the Wildcats stay unbeaten heading into tonight’s game with ASU. Here’s a look at how they got to this point:
1. They cleaned up the roster. Like everything in college sports, Arizona’s chemistry starts with recruiting and roster management.
Two seasons ago, the Wildcats dismissed freshman Sidiki Johnson by December and suspended highly regarded point guard Josiah Turner twice. Turner eventually left the team after the season, and just before he left Tucson for good, was arrested on charges of extreme DUI. Under a plea agreement, he later pleaded guilty to a reduced DUI charge, and spent two days in jail.
While the Wildcats didn’t have those kinds of distractions last season, they had an overload of talent competing for time and the ball. Graduate transfer Mark Lyons served a valuable purpose, winning the Wildcats games and coming through with clutch shots on several occasions, but he also took 21 percent of UA’s shots.
Combined with necessary go-to work from Solomon Hill, who took another 18 percent of the shots, that didn’t leave a whole lot of balls for UA’s three freshmen All-Americans: Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett. The reserve minutes for sophomore Angelo Chol also declined.
So, perhaps not surprisingly after the season, Jerrett opted to leave for professional basketball and Chol took off for San Diego State.
What was left: five returnees, plus returning redshirts in McConnell and Matt Korcheck, and freshmen Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Zach Peters and Elliott Pitts.
Miller has used a tight seven- or eight-man rotation, with those on the outside appearing to be content in their roles.
“I just think we have good team chemistry,” Ashley said earlier this month. “I feel like when times get rough or hard, we all stick together and come out fighting. That’s worked out really well for us so far.”
2. They settled down. Together. Wanting this season’s team to be closer than last year’s, Johnson enlisted the house-hunting help of a girlfriend to lock down a duplex before the school year that allowed seven players to live together. Johnson, McConnell, Tarczewski and walk-on Chris Johnson are in one house, while Gabe York, Ashley and Peters are in the other.
Chris Johnson and Tarczewski are frequent cooks. People occasionally get on one another’s nerves.
“Of course,” Johnson said before the season. “We’re like brothers. Brothers always fight. But at the end of the day, it’s your brother, and that’s who you go to work with.”
3. They followed their leaders. Johnson’s outgoing personality, experience and across-the-board talent made him a clear leader for the Wildcats entering the season. He took the role seriously, not only arranging the living accommodations, but also studying what could be improved.
“I really used our team last season to see what to do and what not to do,” Johnson said. “Me, Kaleb and Brandon (improved what) we did last year, and that’s one of the reasons we are where we are.”
On the court, Johnson has been a leader, encouraging Gordon before he hit two key free throws late against UCLA. But according to Miller, he’s also playing as well as any guard in the country.
With McConnell, his eye-opening 3-1 assist-turnover ratio only tells part of the story — his passion for teamwork, bred in a family of basketball players and coaches, bleeds through to the rest of the roster.
“When you have an unselfish point guard, it can sometimes become contagious,” Miller has said repeatedly this season, noting that the only problem has been getting McConnell to shoot when open, an issue McConnell addressed by scoring 19 points against USC on Sunday.
Off the court, Johnson and McConnell have also been a steadying influence. Miller credited them for keeping the team focused during a long weekend in Los Angeles, with two full days following an emotional win over UCLA before they even had a chance to play USC.
The Wildcats hung around their Manhattan Beach hotel, took in a showing of “Lone Survivor,” then shook off some early game struggles to run away from the Trojans on Sunday.
“As a coach, you really trust the leaders of our team,” Miller said. “T.J. and Nick really do a great job on and off the court, and we kind of follow their lead, so to speak.”
4. They meshed in new egos. When he scheduled a hotly anticipated news conference before the McDonald’s All-American Game to announce he would become a “West Coast Wildcat,” Aaron Gordon described himself as a “glue guy” who would play wherever needed.
He’s done just that. Gordon plays both forward spots, often defends one of the opponent’s top forwards, and is perfectly content creating his own offense around the basket and slamming in the occasional alley-oop pass.
Even as the Wildcats’ top NBA prospect, and a potential lottery pick in June, Gordon is not demanding to be “the man” or even carrying himself as that.
“We’re lucky, because Aaron Gordon is such a great kid and his style is not about shooting and scoring,” Miller said, “so maybe it’s different to blend him into a team dynamic.”
Meanwhile, Gordon’s fellow McDonald’s All-American, Hollis-Jefferson, has assumed a sixth-man role that revolves more around defense and drives to the basket than a featured offensive role.
Together, they make it easy to “connect” with the rest of the team, York said, and Miller has an idea why.
“The thing is, our newcomers are very talented, and are great teammates and great people,” Miller said. “They’re about winning.”
5. They found balance. While Johnson leads the Wildcats with 16.3 points a game, six players are in a tight grouping between 7.2 and 12.2 points per contest. All seven of Arizona’s regular rotation players are taking at least 10 percent of the team’s shots, too.
That gives the Wildcats a particularly difficult look for opponents to defend against.
“It can be anyone’s night,” McConnell said. “We have people who can come out and score. That’s what makes us so deep.”
After Arizona came back to beat UCLA 79-75 last week, Miller was asked about his team’s unselfishness. He started by talking about McConnell — and then everyone else.
“We don’t really deal with the egos or sometimes the unselfishness,” Miller said. “For us, it’s been a real seamless team to coach. Because we work hard as a group and kind of care about each other. You can kind of see that in these types of situations. We really do stick together.”