A month ago, simple math could tell Elliott Pitts that a redshirt season was a pretty good idea.
The Arizona Wildcats had 10 healthy scholarship players, with an 11th soon to be cleared, Kansas transfer Zach Peters. Their backcourt was loaded with veterans Nick Johnson, T.J. McConnell and Jordin Mayes.
And in the one role where Pitts is expected to help most — as a shooter — the freshman guard stood behind sophomore Gabe York, whose year in the program and offseason work has helped jump him all the way into the top seven of the rotation.
At the same time, UA coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats would be best off with an eight-man rotation, maybe nine. With York, Mayes and freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the first ones off the bench in the preseason, that meant nobody else might get in the game, barring foul or injury trouble.
But Friday night, when No. 6 Arizona defeated Cal Poly 73-62 in its regular-season opener, this is what Miller had: Center Kaleb Tarczewski hobbling around on a sore hip. Forward Aaron Gordon limited (well, at least by his lofty standards) with a nagging groin strain. Peters cleared medically, but still without the practice time required to impact the game.
Then there was Mayes, healthy but struggling, with no points, three turnovers and one assist in four minutes. And a backcourt that hit 4 of 9 three-point attempts but allowed Cal Poly guard Kyle Odister to go off for 7-of-14 three-point shooting.
Miller said he looked at that UA team Friday and wasn’t sure if the Wildcats could afford to redshirt Pitts. Especially since Pitts has shown encouraging progress in the preseason.
“Like a lot of our young guys, he’ll keep getting better as the weeks go by here,” Miller said. “There may be a time where he’s a viable option for us.”
The final call won’t have to be made anytime soon. As long as Pitts doesn’t play in a regular-season game he can still take a redshirt season, and a wrist injury that kept him out Friday is likely to sideline him for another week at least, anyway.
The Wildcats will face Long Beach State on Monday and travel to San Diego State for a game Thursday.
“We don’t look for him to be able to play Monday,” Miller said. “And then once we get past Monday, then we’ll be able to have a better prognosis about his future.”
A year ago, York was in a similar position. Arizona had 10 scholarship players active, with McConnell and forward Matt Korcheck sitting out, while Mark Lyons, Johnson and Mayes were receiving the bulk of the backcourt minutes.
And even if you could get on the floor, the shots were hard to find. Lyons, Solomon Hill and Johnson combined for more than half the Wildcats’ field goal attempts last season.
York did not redshirt, but it almost seemed that way sometimes. He sat out 20 of UA’s 35 games, making brief impacts on the floor in December’s Diamond Head Classic and during a midseason Pac-12 trip to Washington.
But that was about it. York played in only four games after Feb. 2 and logged only four minutes, all against Harvard, in the postseason.
On Friday, things were drastically different. York not only played 26 minutes but also started when Tarczewski sat out at the beginning of the game because of his hip issue.
He earned it, Miller indicated.
“He’s stronger; you can see that,” Miller said of York after Friday’s game. “A year ago he looked like a young colt as a freshman, but now he’s heavier and stronger. He’s practiced and worked extremely hard for this opportunity.
“He’s a real key player for us on offense, and I thought he did a good job on defense as well.”
No question Pitts needs to make a similar leap physically. He arrived at UA with about 170 pounds on his 6-foot-5-inch frame, though it’s not yet clear if Pitts will stay active or plan to redshirt. Miller said Friday his discussions with Pitts have indicated the freshman wants to give it a shot this season.
Certainly, that was the impression Pitts left during UA’s preseason media day in September, the last time he was available for media interviews. He said then that he didn’t think he would redshirt, that he wanted to help the team however he could, and had already worked to gain weight during the preseason.
Not that it was all work. Part of it was just dieting in reverse.
“The whole summer, my main goal was to just put some weight on and gain some strength, and I think I did a good job of doing that,” Pitts said. “I had a lot of protein shakes, things like that. That definitely helped me out.
“There was not really a huge limit on what I couldn’t eat. I needed to eat a lot. I tried to cut down on sugars and stuff like that.”