Just over five hours before Arizona opened its season, the school emailed a two-paragraph explanation of why assistant coach Mark Phelps and forward Keanu Pinder would miss the Wildcats’ first game.
Here’s how it read in full:
“Arizona assistant men’s basketball coach Mark Phelps has been suspended without pay for five days, including games against NAU and UMBC, for a violation of NCAA rules. The violation is unrelated to the ongoing federal investigation. Phelps will return to his coaching duties on Wednesday, Nov. 15.
"Arizona senior Keanu Pinder is being withheld from tonight’s game against NAU for a violation of NCAA rules. Pinder will be available for Sunday’s game versus UMBC.”
After the Wildcats beat NAU 101-67, UA coach Sean Miller opened his postgame press conference by referring to that statement. He said:
“I’m aware that we did release a statement prior to tonight’s tipoff of what was said in the statement and the actions that were taken and (I) support both,” Miller said. “I hope you respect the fact that any questions you would have about that I’m gonna point back to the statement and it’s something I stand by and support.”
Miller did just that (kind of like he fended off rapid-fire questions at Pac-12 media day). Since UA's statement Friday didn’t give any details on what happened, I asked if the suspensions were related.
"I’m gonna stand by that statement and I’m gonna move on to any basketball related question that you would like to ask. And I’ll ask myself one: Allonzo Trier, I thought he had a great night tonight.”
While UA did say the suspensions were not related to the federal investigation, the school has commissioned an independent review of the program. UA also may have done some internal looking around while remaining largely quiet in the initial days following Book Richardson's Sept. 26 arrest.
Arizona will get Pinder back from his suspension and Dylan Smith back from a suspension for an unspecified “team violation” on Sunday against UMBC.
But Brandon Randolph may skip another game. After UA beat NAU 101-67 in its season opener on Friday at McKale, Miller indicated the Wildcats are going to tread carefully with the concussion the freshman wing suffered in practice on Nov. 4.
At a minimum, UA keeps players out for a week after a concussion and players must follow a progression that ends with going through full practice activities – and showing no symptoms afterward – before they can return to a game.
Miller said Friday that Randolph has been cleared for full contact in practice on Saturday, but said the Wildcats wouldn’t do that much in it.
“I’m cautious in what I’m gonna say about Brandon because he’s missed seven or eight days in a row,” Miller said. “Hopefully he’ll be available (Sunday) but ... if he can play we have to be careful with him in terms of how ready he is and also what’s best for our team but he’ll work his way back.
"He’s had a great preseason and when you get hit with that injury, it can set you back a couple of weeks. But I have great confidence once he’s 100 percent healthy and is able to practice again he’ll be somebody we really count on.”
Even if Randolph doesn’t return, the Wildcats will have 10 available scholarship players Sunday, with an extra forward (Pinder) and an extra guard (Smith) that they didn't have Friday.
For Smith, it will be his first appearance in an intercollegiate game of any sort for the Wildcats. He played in the 2016 and 2017 Red-Blue scrimmages, sitting out last season after his transfer from UNC Asheville, then was suspended for an unspecified team violation for two exhibition games this year and UA’s season opener.
Miller said Smith has turned a corner.
“He’s had a really good summer. He’s worked hard. Academically he’s really in a good place,” Miller said. “Off the court, I don’t think he’s ever been better. You can see that in practice. His practice habits are excellent and he’s one of our team’s best passers which says a lot. At Asheville, he hit a lot of 3s so he can do that as well.”
Miller said the redshirt season also helped Smith, as it did with Miller-era transfers such as T.J. McConnell, Ryan Anderson and Kadeem Allen.
“Dylan Smith in a very quiet was has progressed,” Miller said. “No one talks about him because he’s not a part of this year’s recruiting class and he wasn’t a highly touted guy but a lot of the transfers that we have had have been here for a full year. They can hit the ground running, and I believe he’ll add some much needed depth for us.”
Parker Jackson-Cartwright was just 1 of 5 from the field, but Miller raved about him – bcause he also had eight assists to no turnovers and made the one 3-pointer he took.
Like he did with McConnell early in his UA career, Miller has been encouraging PJC to take open shots in an effort to further open things up offensively for his teammates.
“What we really want him to do is shoot open 3s,” Miller said. “Sometimes he’s so unselfish and he’s such a pass-first player that he actually doesn’t allow himself to make his teammates better because he passes up the open look. And when the defense doesn’t have to account for him, it doesn’t matter how talented he is passing the ball. Some of his passing skills are diminished.
“I have more confidence in Parker than I’ve ever had before. A lot like some of the recent players that we’ve had who become seniors, he’s ready to have a really good season. I just have my fingers crossed that he can become healthy. Injuries in the past have hurt him somewhat. If he’s healthy, he’s going to have a big, big year.”
Arizona led the Pac-12 in free-throw percentage last season and was 19th nationally with a collective 76.5 percent mark.
The Wildcats are at 87.5 percent so far this season after making 28 of 32 on Friday, and Miller indicated that effort wasn’t a fluke.
“This is the best free-throw shooting team we’ve had,” Miller said. “We’re gonna have our nights I’m sure where they don’t make them. We were an excellent free-throw shooting team las year and it’s a big reason we had such a great season. We were in a lot of close games in November and December because we were going through injuries and other things and a lot of those games were won at the foul line.
“This year’s team we can get to the line and we have the ability to really make them. Deandre Ayton (who made 7 of 8 Friday) at the free throw line is like a point guard making free throws. He’s really, really good.”