There were sputters here and there, an inability to defend big guys on the perimeter, some lackadaisical rebounding, a little trouble replacing hobbling freshman Aaron Gordon.
“There are some things we have to adjust and be more prepared for,” Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller said.
But, seriously. It’s October. And the No. 5 Arizona Wildcats, as shown in their 84-52 exhibition win over Division II Augustana (S.D.) College on Monday, have an engine all of a sudden.
Junior transfer T.J. McConnell scored 12 points, grabbed three steals and dished eight assists without a single turnover, igniting a selfless and balanced offense while delivering the kind of true-point-guard engineering that had been widely expected since he transferred from Duquesne after the 2011-12 season.
With McConnell, and four other scorers reaching double figures even while Gordon was limited with a groin strain, there was a sense all that other stuff can be fixed.
Even Miller, who began his post-game media discussion by lamenting how poorly his team handled Augustana’s wide range of shooters, offered as much.
“I don’t think any coach or any team or player is going to be satisfied where we are on Oct. 28,” Miller said. “There were times when I felt we looked really good. There were certain times we probably looked really bad.”
The Wildcats were at their best when in transition, with McConnell or Nick Johnson grabbing a steal and converting it to an assist. In the first half, after UA struggled to an early 7-2 deficit, McConnell quickly began picking the Wildcats up.
He hit Johnson early in the half, resulting in Johnson picking up a foul and hitting two free throws to tie the game at 7 early, then later hit a three-pointer.
With 11 minutes left in the half, McConnell stole an inbound Augustana pass and fed it to Gordon for an easy score and then later stole the ball and assisted Johnson on a breakaway dunk that made it 28-16.
Overall, UA had 12 steals and eight blocks, and just about everybody had a chance to dunk it. Johnson fed center Kaleb Tarczewski for one toward the end of the first half, giving UA a 14-point halftime lead it would keep increasing in the second half.
“Nick and T.J. really complement each other well,” Miller said. “When the game gets fast, they make good decisions.”
That wasn’t all. Gabe York, on the outside of the regular playing rotation last season, tied Johnson with team-high scoring honors at 14 points while making 6 of 9 shots.
There also was forward Brandon Ashley collecting eight points, five rebounds, three blocks and a steal, and freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite struggling to shoot 2 for 7 from the field, getting to the free throw line nine times (for six made shots) and scoring 10 points.
It was only an exhibition game, with minutes distributed more widely than they almost certainly will be during the regular season, but there was a balance to UA’s offense that Miller liked to see.
The Wildcats, as a team, had 21 assists and only five turnovers.
“We are a much better passing team than we were last year and one of the reasons is our backcourt,” Miller said. “They want to pass the ball. Brandon had a dunk down the middle, Aaron may have had one in transition and so did Kaleb. All three of those came off really great passes.”
The difference from last season, when scoring-minded Mark Lyons ran the show and Solomon Hill was the clear-cut frontcourt option, was clear to York.
In fact, there are so many options now that alertness is critical.
“With T.J. you never know what he’s going to do,” York said. “He can pass or score the ball, and he passes probably better than he can score. So you just have to be ready at all times. Also, the offense with Rondae and Aaron, we can be diverse and go off in all separate ways.”
The only problem Monday was that the Wildcats didn’t have Gordon around fully. Miller said he’s been limited with a groin strain for the past 5-7 days, and that the injury started to bother him in the first half, so he played just 22 minutes.
That wasn’t a problem in itself, with UA up comfortably in the second half, but it meant Miller had to shift Hollis-Jefferson to power forward instead of Gordon when Ashley and Tarczewski both picked up four fouls.
That wasn’t so easy.
“There’s no question we have to be able to slide him to the four, in a pinch,” Miller said. “We’ll be deeper if he can slide over.”
Monday’s rebounding edge was even at 39, but the Cats will be deeper inside if Kansas transfer Zach Peters can get medically cleared after his history of concussions. Peters sat out Monday, but Miller is hopeful Peters will get cleared in the next 7-10 days.
So by Nov. 8, after a week of practice, a closed scrimmage at St. Mary’s on Saturday, and another week of practice, the Wildcats could have a chance to iron out some troubles, get Gordon healthy and maybe even add Peters.
There’s time. Lots of time.
“We learned a lot tonight,” Miller said. “We have two weeks to take advantage of it.”