With a summer full of workouts, an exhibition trip to the Bahamas and three public exhibitions, the Arizona Wildcats had as much preseason preparation as any college basketball team in America.
But, during an 82-73 win over Charleston Southern in their season opener Sunday, the Wildcats found there sometimes is no substitute for plain old game experience.
The Buccaneers, a veteran team picked to win the Big South Conference, threw off the Wildcats on both sides of the court. While Arizona overcame some awkwardness against CSU's zone defense, shifting to a downsized lineup and collecting 25 assists to only eight turnovers, the Wildcats struggled to contain the Buccaneers' spread-out offense.
Charleston Southern fired off 28 three-pointers, hitting them at a 35.7 percent rate, while out-rebounding UA 34-31 and making seven more trips to the free-throw line.
Individually, Charleston Southern was able to marginalize UA freshmen post starters Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski, but the Wildcats fired back with the more agile Brandon Ashley (12 points, eight rebounds) off the bench and received critical veteran help from Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom, Nick Johnson and Jordin Mayes.
"Especially in your season opener, you rely on your veterans," UA coach Sean Miller said. "The guys who have been through it before, they were ready."
While Miller said Lyons "was pressing a little" at times, the senior transfer from Xavier led the Wildcats in scoring with 17 points and had six assists with no turnovers.
Instantly one of the team's leaders this preseason, Lyons instead found himself receiving help Sunday in his UA debut.
"It was tough at first," Lyons said. "But I've been there and done that, and my teammates picked me up and told me everything was OK and I kept playing."
Lyons actually had some of the toughest work to do. Not only did he have to initiate the UA offense against the Bucs' matchup zone but he also had to contain guard Saah Nimley, who is skilled, quick and generously measured at 5-foot-8 by the Buccaneers.
Nimley wound up with 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists with four turnovers, while backcourt mate Arlon Harper led all scorers with 20 points on 5-for-10 field-goal shooting and made 7 of 10 free throws.
Defensively, CSU matched up out of its zone but was cautious, fouling four fewer times than the Wildcats did.
"When you have two guards like they have and you spread the floor like they do it's to their advantage if they don't foul," Miller said. "As we went small both in the first half and the second half that's when we hit our stride."
Miller eventually turned to Ashley to play center, using Tarczewski for only seven minutes in the second half, and had the senior Hill play power forward.
He also inserted Parrom in the middle of the Bucs' zone for 12 minutes in the second half, and the move paid off. The senior had six points, five rebounds and five assists, giving UA its first real breathing room when he hit a three-pointer from the left corner to give the Wildcats an 80-66 lead with 1:59 left.
"Kevin made some key plays, and that's when we broke the game open," Miller said. "He's really comfortable (against a zone) because Kevin's a physical player and he's a very good passer."
In the first half, it was Mayes who provided veteran help off the bench. The Cats struggled early to adjust to the Buccaneers, falling behind 11-3, and Miller replaced his entire starting lineup less than nine minutes into the game.
Of the reserves, Mayes quickly began to stand out. The junior guard had two three-pointers and a jumper within a span of a 1:07 late in the first half, giving UA its first lead of the game en route to a 43-39 advantage at the half.
Mayes made only one three-pointer after New Year's last season.
"It was good to see," Miller said. "Us being up four at the first half was a function of Jordin's play."
But while the veterans made the difference this time, the Wildcats know they will need more from their young frontcourt in the near future. With Jerrett, Tarczewski, Ashley and Angelo Chol, UA has versatility, skill and size inside - if it can handle defenses that other teams deploy specifically for them.
Miller said CSU's zone was "tricky" for his young players and there will likely be more of them.
"When you have four guys 6-9 or above who can all play, you're definitely going to be game-planned for that," Johnson said. "We've just got to be prepared for it and go from there."
It should help the Wildcats that now there's a valuable game tape to review along with all those practices.
"Although we've practiced very hard and well, until we start seeing different styles, some of the points we make (in practice) you almost have to go through it, then repair, grow and improve," Miller said. "We screwed a number of things up, which a lot of times you do in November and you hope you learn a lesson after a win.
"But we'll be able to go over the film, we'll be able to talk and teach, and that's what this time of year is so much about."
On StarNet: Follow the Wildcats through the season on Bruce Pascoe's blog at azstarnet.com/pascoe
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