In their regular season opener Friday, the Arizona Wildcats showed glimpses of why they are the most hyped team in the Sean Miller era.
They also showed why it isn’t easy being the most hyped team in the Sean Miller era.
The Wildcats delivered a 73-62 win over Cal Poly on Friday at McKale Center, showing off the kind of athleticism, height, ballhandling, defense, balanced scoring and freshmen that gave them a No. 6 preseason ranking.
Then they showed the fact that, despite all those things, they’re apparently human.
The Wildcats put in just 20 of their 36 free throws, a performance from the line that was worse than any of last season’s, with star freshman Aaron Gordon missing 4 of 6 from the line to drag down an otherwise eye-opening debut: 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks despite being limited somewhat with a groin strain.
“I was a little bit nervous,” said Gordon, one of six UA players who scored in double figures.
Steady point guard T.J. McConnell wasn’t immune, either. An 83.6-percent free throw shooter two seasons ago at Duquesne, McConnell missed all three he took Friday.
“I’m telling you right now: Just look him up,” Miller said of McConnell. “He’s something like 80 percent.”
The free-throw woes allowed the Mustangs to stay fully in a game that could have been much easier for the Wildcats. Arizona led by just three points at halftime and couldn’t push much past a 10-point lead in the final 10 minutes of the game.
“Obviously it’s frustrating,” forward Brandon Ashley said. “You don’t like missing shots. But at the same time, you leave everything that happens in the past. If you turn the ball over, next play. If you miss a free throw, next play. Keep on moving.”
Except the problem kept happening, and there were other issues Arizona couldn’t easily compensate for.
Center Kaleb Tarczewski didn’t start for the first time in his 36-game career, because of what Miller said was a lack of responsiveness to a hip injury suffered earlier this week.
Then there was Gordon’s groin injury, which Miller said limited him in the second half.
And, though he might not have played anyway, there was also a sprained wrist to Elliott Pitts that kept the freshman guard out.
Miller said Pitts probably won’t play Monday against Long Beach State, and that his future would be evaluated after that, but stopped short of saying a redshirt season is likely.
The Wildcats have only 11 scholarship players, and one of them is Kansas transfer Zach Peters, who was cleared only this week after a history of concussions in the previous two years. Peters did not play Friday.
“I don’t know if we can afford to” redshirt Pitts, Miller said. “Elliott does a great job in practice.”
Without Tarczewski, the Wildcats went with a small lineup that featured Ashley at center, Gordon at power forward, Nick Johnson at small forward, Gabe York at shooting guard and McConnell at point guard.
York responded with 12 points and five rebounds, hitting 2 of 4 three pointers, despite finding out just 30 minutes before tipoff he would start.
“I got a little nervous,” he said.
The collective adversity left UA unable to break Friday’s game open.
Cal Poly trailed 11-4 early but kept it close throughout the rest of the half. Toward the end, Dave Nwaba stole the ball from Jordin Mayes and scored to pull Cal Poly within 26-25, with 4:45 left in first. Nwaba later cut it to 31-29 before Gordon dunked in a rebound.
Just before halftime, Chris Eversley hit a three-pointer from the corner to pull Cal Poly within one point, 35-34, but Ashley hit a pair of free throws to put UA ahead by three at halftime.
Earlier in the first half, the Cats ran off to the quick 11-4 lead thanks to Gordon’s splashy debut: During his first four minutes on the floor, he hit a three-pointer, made a basket on a rebound and blocked a shot.
But Cal Poly took a brief 19-17 lead midway through the half, thanks to 3-of-5 three-point shooting from Odister, who had three treys and hit the winning two free throws when the Mustangs upset UCLA last season.
While UA never trailed in the second half, after taking a three-point halftime lead, Cal Poly also would not fade away thanks in part to the three-point shooting of Kyle Odister and Chris Eversley. Odister scored 21 points while making 7 of 14 three-pointers while Eversley had 17 points and made 3 of 7 threes.
“We were on the cusp about two or three times of really being able to put the game away whether that’s (because of) not making free throws or having a silly turnover in transition,” Miller said. “But it was a good, hard-fought victory. … and hopefully we got some of the butterflies out of our stomach and will be more sure of ourselves moving forward.”