Arizona basketball: Roller coaster ride lives up to expectations

Ups, downs, twists, turns land UA where it was projected to be
2013-03-30T00:00:00Z 2014-08-01T11:30:06Z Arizona basketball: Roller coaster ride lives up to expectationsBruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Considering where the Arizona Wildcats were predicted to be in October, you could say their season just about met expectations.

They were a preseason No. 12 pick in The Associated Press poll, suggesting a Sweet 16 finish, and were picked by just one vote to win the Pac-12 over UCLA. At 12-6 in league play, UA finished in a three-way tie for second place, just a game behind the Bruins.

But because UA built up a 14-0 record with wins over Florida, Miami and San Diego State, expectations grew heading into January.

Then the Wildcats slumped in February, before turning it around in March just in time to reach the Pac-12 tournament semifinals and NCAA tournament Sweet 16.

Here's one look at the ride that was 2012-13 for the Wildcats:

High point

Dec 25, Honolulu

Mark Lyons drove to the basket and picked up a foul, making two game-winning free throws, before Nick Johnson preserved a 68-67 win over San Diego State in the Diamond Head Classic title game by leaping from the free throw line to swat away a layup attempt by Chase Tapley just before the buzzer.

"Nick, obviously, came out of nowhere," UA coach Sean Miller said.

It was the last of three big wins for the Wildcats over an 11-day stretch - against Florida at home on Dec. 15, against Miami on Dec. 23 in the Diamond Head semis and against SDSU. It also gave UA a 12-0 record heading into Pac-12 conference play and a No. 3 national ranking.

Low point

Feb. 27, Los Angeles

For the fourth time in six games, UA allowed an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent in a half, and this time it allowed USC to do so in both halves. During the Trojans' 89-78 win over UA at the Galen Center, USC shot 58.1 percent in the first half and 65.2 percent in the second half.

"We're completely undisciplined," Miller said after the game. "It's on me. … Recently, this is the worst defensive team I've ever coached."

The loss was UA's worst of the season, and its only one to a non-NCAA tournament team, though the Wildcats began improving again during a 74-69 loss at UCLA three days later.

Mr. Clutch

Mark Lyons

Whether it was his game-winning layup against Florida, the game-winning free throws against SDSU, or any number of other occasions in which the Wildcats desperately needed a bucket, Lyons was often there. Among other notable moments, Lyons made 10 of 10 free throws to help UA beat Colorado in overtime on Jan. 3, and scored 13 second-half points to bail UA out of a scare at Utah.

In the NCAA tournament, Lyons shot a collective 20 for 32 from the field and averaged 25 points in UA's first two games then added 23 points on 6-for-12 field goal and 9-for-10 free-throw shooting against Ohio State.

He wasn't a true point guard, finishing with 99 assists to 95 turnovers and with only four assists in three NCAA tournament games. But Miller found the positives far outweighed the negatives in his former Xavier recruit.

"Mark is not your prototypical point guard and we knew that when he came here," Miller said earlier this month. "But I believe he's given our team a confidence level, extra firepower and an added quality, and I think he's done a really good job for our team."

Mr. Guts

Solomon Hill

Nobody put together more consistent stat lines than UA's fourth-year senior, who scored in double figures 27 times in 35 games. Hill's determination was seen no more clearly than during a four-minute stretch against Ohio State in which he scored all nine of UA's points, most from charging hard to the basket.

Hill was Miller's first recruit after his April 2009 hiring, though Hill had committed to Arizona before Lute Olson retired in October 2008 and decommitted afterward.

"He's been a rock for us," Miller said after UA beat Harvard last week. "Been there from the very beginning all the way through. … He's been a real, real part of our success."

Mr. X

Nick Johnson

As the Wildcats' athletic, do-it-all combo guard went, so, generally, did the Wildcats.

Johnson was arguably the Wildcats' MVP in the nonconference season, averaging 12.4 points, hitting 47.1 percent of his three-pointers, posting a 1.7-1 assist-turnover ratio, defending opponents' top perimeter threats and, as seen during that block in Hawaii, stretching to provide eye-popping "help" defense when needed.

But Johnson fell ill on Feb. 2 at Washington State, then struggled on both ends of the floor the rest of the month - and so did the Wildcats. When Johnson once again found his rhythm on March 2 at UCLA, so did the rest of his teammates, who managed to reach the Sweet 16 despite losing half of their last 10 games entering the NCAA tournament.

"I take that personally, knowing that I'm the main defensive guy and my energy really affects the team," Johnson said in Utah. "It's contagious."

Rising

The freshmen bigs

After arriving with sky-high expectations from being high school All-Americans - then finding there is only one ball on the senior-dominated team they joined - Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett struggled at times to make an impact.

But they all carved stronger niches toward the end of the season - Tarczewski with sometimes-unstoppable post moves, Ashley with interior defense and rangy offense, and Jerrett with perimeter shooting and shot-blocking.

Stagnating

Angelo Chol and Gabe York

Miller's rotation alternatively included and excluded Arizona's aggressive big man and its freshman shooting guard, but neither one permanently stuck in what was often an eight-man rotation.

Chol played his best game on Feb. 6 at Stanford, when Jerrett was out with a foot injury and Ashley had foul trouble, but never found a rhythm with his limited minutes.

York was briefly inserted into the UA rotation on the midseason Washington trip, but played in only four games after hitting a three-pointer on Feb. 2 at Washington State.

The bottom line

Whether the season was a disappointment or not to those outside the program, Miller left no doubt on how he viewed it Thursday after the Ohio State game.

"We won 27 games and, to me, our team did a lot of remarkable things," Miller said.

"My focus is on being back here next year and trying to break through. Sometimes you have to knock at that door a few times to break it in."

Contact reporter Bruce Pascoe at 573-4145 or bpascoe@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @brucepascoe

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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