When the Arizona Wildcats returned three players back to the court last weekend, coach Sean Miller didn’t just get more talent and depth in his rotation.
He also got his leverage back.
With 11 healthy scholarship players now that Brandon Randolph, Dylan Smith and Keanu Pinder are back, Miller is free to bench any of his high-performing offensive talents if they don’t measure up on the defensive end.
That much was clear in how Miller described the return of sophomore guard Dylan Smith from a three-game suspension for violating team rules. Smith hit 2 of 4 3-pointers and blocked two shots in 14 minutes in Sunday’s win over UMBC. It was Smith’s Wildcats debut after transferring from UNC Asheville in 2016 and sitting out last season.
“I really believe he’s improved on defense and will continue to do so, but in some regards a couple of our players who will eventually emerge are going to hang their hat on defense, because we need more of those types of guys right now,” Miller said.
“Not that everybody isn’t allowed to take a good shot, but we need more balance. We need perimeter players who can maybe sign up to guard the other team’s best offensive player.”
Will Smith sign up? Certainly, his two blocks opened some eyes about what his slender 6-5 frame can do.
“Dylan’s long,” senior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “He’s like 6-5 and his arms touch the rim pretty much. He got out there and blocked those shots. That was really impressive.”
What about Brandon Randolph, the other gifted scorer who returned from a concussion on Sunday?
Randolph so far is known as a gifted, aggressive scorer who may be needed on the floor often — especially until Rawle Alkins returns — but it’s difficult to know how his defense will progress. At this point, just getting Randolph back after just a week was a victory of sorts for the Wildcats.
Randolph played two minutes in each half Sunday while coming back slowly from a head injury suffered in practice on Nov. 3. Randolph was cleared to play in full-contact practices on Saturday, but Miller said the Wildcats didn’t really have a full-contact practice that day.
“So to put him out there in five-on-five game like that, I don’t know if it would be smart for him or our team,” Miller said. “I was just glad he could get in the game and now he can start working his way back.”
But the third UA player who returned Sunday is already a proven defender: Forward Keanu Pinder proved himself as an agile, aggressive defender and shot-blocker as a junior last season after transferring from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Pinder suspended for Friday’s against NAU because of an NCAA violation. He returned against UMBC, and had four points, four rebounds, two steals and a block in 12 minutes.
Pinder and freshman Ira Lee both hold promise of being the kind of defenders Miller is looking for inside: Pinder is older and more experienced, but Lee is physically capable as a freshman and more athletic than his size might suggest.
Miller said the two helped give the UA a quicker look inside on Sunday.
“Keanu’s one of our most experienced players,” Miller said. “He’s in his last year of college on a team with so many young players, five freshmen. He gives us an older feel. He knows his role. Ira does, too. They play with a lot of energy, they’re quick and I think they really embrace the defensive role on this team and that’s a healthy component for us.”
- Allonzo Trier, Deandre Ayton and Alkins were among the 50 college basketball players named to the Wooden Award’s preseason watch list Tuesday. Only Duke — with Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley and Trevon Duval — also had three players on the watch list for the national player of the year award. Other players on the list from the Pac-12: USC’s Jordan McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu, UCLA’s Aaron Holiday and Stanford’s Reid Travis.