The Arizona Wildcats are still more than a week away from a regular-season game, and yet their playing rotation already may be falling into place.
In the Wildcats’ 84-52 exhibition win over Augustana on Monday, UA coach Sean Miller used eight players 20 minutes or more, while forward Matt Korcheck had 11 and guard Elliott Pitts had 10.
And, in the very near future, the minutes for the end of the lineup are likely to shrink.
“We’re not going to play everyone the minutes they played tonight for sure,” Miller said. “Right now I’m going to say we’re going to play eight players. The ninth could get in but it’s going to be some games more than others. To me, we have a good rotation through eight.”
So this is the simple truth of it: The starting five of T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Then a backup wing (Gabe York), a backup combo guard (Jordin Mayes) and a backup forward (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson).
If Zach Peters can get cleared medically – and Miller said he expected it to happen within a week or so -- there’s a potential backup in the post, too.
The problem is that the margin for error in the frontcourt is thin. The rotation as Miller described works because Gordon can shift to power forward, thus allowing wings to fill in from the bench, but Gordon was limited Monday because of a groin strain and UA struggled to move Hollis-Jefferson into the four.
“You see what happens,” Miller said. “So far, we’ve given Rondae one position (small forward). He’s a freshman. It’s so hard to give freshmen two positions. We want to make him comfortable first. But there’s no question we have to be able to slide him to the four and give a more simple version on offense, because he’ll be fine on offense. What he gives us is another quick defender at the four. We’ll be deeper if he can slide over and play that position.”
Sometime next month, Miller may be able to see if Peters will make the puzzle easier to work, too.
“We’re hopeful he can get cleared here in the next week to 10 days and he would give us another potential player out there,” Miller said. “I think we’re going to play eight guys and really rotate them. Everyone thinks you’re deeper on the outside than the coach really does.”
Even though Miller said Gordon wasn’t his usual self with the groin strain, he still managed seven points and five rebounds in 22 minutes. But Gordon was able to play only four minutes early in the second half before sitting out for good.
“We noticed it in the first half and he asked to be taken out,” Miller said. “The last thing you want to do is aggravate it. It’s only a strain right now and we don’t want it to evolve into something that’s bigger than that.”
One guy Miller indicates is likely to stay in the rotation is York, who played in just 15 games last season.
Somewhat surprisingly, York is still around after all that bench-warming.
“On our team a year ago, he had some really experienced guards – Kevin Parrom, Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson – and he played on a team that was almost in the Elite Eight,” Miller said. “And he was a freshman. In today’s world, most of the time, if you’re in his situation, people tell you to leave.
“I give Gabe and his family tremendous credit because they didn’t take the easy way out – I think they did what was right and Gabe continues to evolve. He’s doing a great job in school, he’s a year older, he’s stronger. Even watching him here tonight you know he’s a big part of this year’s team but moving forward he can have an even bigger role in the future and maybe evolve into an all-conference player. That’s the path that Gabe York could go on. But if you give up on the process you never get there.”
Miller said York should be a “real pivotal player” on this year’s Wildcats, provided he holds his own defensively.
“He can shoot the basketball and he can score,” Miller said. “Now with that, he also has to do his part defensively, so it doesn’t even out. Like all of our players, there may have been some missed assignments or times where his guy got freed up but also Gabe’s such a young player and he hasn’t been in some big stretches so earlier in the year I think he’ll have some big bumps in the road.
“I know he’ll get better at it as he gets going. But we need him to shoot the ball. You put him out there with our big guys and a point guard, he’s going to get some open shots and there’s no question he can knock them down.”
This time, it’s Pitts who appears to be sitting on the outside of the rotation so far, but Miller said it’s still too early to say if Pitts will redshirt.
Pitts was 1 for 4 for three points, with five rebounds and a steal on Monday. He can’t play in a regular-season game if he is redshirted, though freshmen can play in exhibition games and still do so.
Augustana sophomore center Daniel Jansen, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference’s freshman of the year last season, proved a tough matchup for Tarczewski.
When Jansen scored the Vikings’ first seven points of the game with layups and a three-pointer, finishing with a game-high 18 points, Miller’s alarms went off.
“We have to make sure we’re putting Kaleb in the best position to be successful against skilled face-up players,” Miller said. “The guy he was playing against tonight was a very good player. I think he’s a Pac-12 player.
“I mean he had his way with us tonight. So we need to put (Tarczewski) in better position, and as he gets more experience, he has to be able to move his feet, be in the right place at the right time, hope he doesn’t foul."
As a whole, Miller said, the Wildcats need to be better prepared for a skilled team full of shooters such as Augustana.
“With the way Augustana shot the three from five positions, it taught me, it taught our staff moving forward that there may have to be a couple of adjustments for us to really improve in certain areas so that we can be even better defending that type of team,” Miller said. “It puts pressure on you. You make a couple go in, (then there’s) 6-9 points in a row that can really change our circumstances.”
The biggest issue for the Wildcats on Monday? Maybe that Augustana tied Arizona in rebounding at 39-39, despite having only one player, Jansen, taller than 6-foot-6.
“I would say that’s the most disappointing part of our game,” Miller said. “We addressed it at halftime. We just had some big guys not go. We didn’t give great effort. When you’re playing against a skilled team, a lot of times when you negate that skills it's with the rebounding, the physicality.
“When you’re the bigger, stronger team you offset some of their skill by getting second shots and punishing some of their skilled players around the basket. We weren’t able to do that.”