Gimino: Early warning signs for Arizona basketball - Tucson News Now

Gimino: Early warning signs for Arizona basketball

Arizona is still trying to come together (Rebecca Sasnett/Arizona Athletics) Arizona is still trying to come together (Rebecca Sasnett/Arizona Athletics)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Let's start here: It's early December. OK? Early December.

Pac-12 conference play for men's basketball is a month away. There are 15 weeks before the Pac-12 tournament begins, and another week after that before the college basketball dance gets much, much bigger.

That said, it is an annual tradition that Arizona Wildcats fans seem to lose their minds when the team suffers its first loss of the season, which happened Friday against Providence in a semifinal game of the Wooden Legacy tournament in Fullerton, Calif.

Beyond that singular loss, though, UA's opening game of the tournament was an ugly overtime win against an overmatched Santa Clara team, and the Cats wrapped up the event Sunday with a win over Boise State that got tight at the end before Arizona posted a 68-59 decision.

Coach Sean Miller was right about this: This team, much more than the past couple of UA editions, is definitely going to be a work in progress for a while.

So, hold off on reaching for the panic button. We're just seven games into the season.

But nobody promised a smooth ride.

Here are some of those potholes on the road to March:

Health

Touted freshman forward Ray Smith, the team's most natural wing player, didn't make it through the preseason, suffering the second ACL injury of his basketball career. It's hard to know exactly what Arizona is missing because he never made it on to the court, other than the Red-Blue Game, but his absence is significant.

The news got worse Monday when the school announced starting center Kaleb Tarczewski would be out four to six weeks because of a stress reaction and strained muscle in his left foot. That makes him unavailable for the final six games of the non-conference schedule, and perhaps out for three conference games, all on the road -- at Arizona State and UCLA and USC.

It's nice that Arizona has a 7-footer in reserve like sophomore Dusan Ristic, but he doesn't appear to have Miller's full trust right now.

With Tarczewski missing his second consecutive game, Ristic played only nine minutes against Boise State on Sunday. When post players Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen had fouled out with about four minutes left, Miller opted to go with a five-guard lineup instead of putting Ristic on the floor.

Ristic has uncommon offensive skill around the basket for someone his age, but his defense and attention to detail will need to be much better over the next month as opportunity knocks.

Shooting

Arizona is making just 28.1 percent of its 3-point attempts (34 of 121) through seven games.

Not much to say here other than the percentages should correct themselves over time, as Gabe York, Elliott Pitts and Tollefsen are shooting below career percentages. Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier figure to pick up the pace, too.

In the meantime, Arizona did Sunday what it should be doing: Minimize the shots from beyond the arc (taking only eight) and have the guards take the ball to the basket. That works.

Growing into roles

Let's take York. The senior guard has been a complementary player with a defined role the past couple of years -- a shooter off the bench. Now, he's being asked to be a starter, a lead scorer and a team leader.

That's a very different role, and sometimes it looks as if he is forcing the action, if only because no one else is stepping up.

Jackson-Cartwright is no longer merely the high-energy backup to T.J. McConnell. Now, he's averaging nearly 24 minutes per game as opposed to playing just in short bursts. Again, very different.

Transfers Tollefsen, Anderson and Kadeem Allen are each on the active Arizona roster for the first time, perhaps wondering how much to defer to other veterans and how much to take control. Anderson needs to be the alpha male on this team.

And then there is freshman Allonzo Trier.

With his ability to score and draw fouls, Trier's skill set is something Arizona desperately needs more of, no matter his other current limitations.

"Allonzo scores easily, and it's a matter of him adjusting to the game on defense and it's a matter of him understanding the team aspect -- when to drive, when not to, when to give the ball up, when to make quicker decisions," Miller said on his postgame radio show Sunday.

"But his intent is great. It's more right now about him learning the game experience, and, in some cases, me being really patient with him and trying to teach him as opposed to taking him out of the game."

Several guys just aren't completely comfortable yet. They will be when roles become more defined.

Defense

Arizona's greatest defense strengths -- size at the rim and defensive rebounding -- figure to return when Tarczewski is healthy.

Far less clear is finding a defensive ace on the perimeter.

Stop for a second and appreciate what Arizona had the past couple of years -- the spider-like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, savvy thief T.J. McConnell, athletic veteran Nick Johnson and versatile freak Aaron Gordon.

Miller trusts the effort Pitts brings while trying to be a defensive stopper, but the upside isn't the same. Other options for the role are Allen and, less likely for the moment, freshman Justin Simon. That could yet play out.

It's not fair to pin the defensive shortcomings on any individual. This is another area influenced by the multitude of new players and new roles; a more cohesive team defense should emerge over the next few months.

In the meantime, the warning alarms might only get louder.

Arizona plays at Gonzaga on Saturday, now unable to match the size on the Bulldogs' front line, which could be the best in the nation. A home game against athletic UNLV on Dec. 19 looks problematic. The start of conference play is scary.

But it's not as if Miller is out of moves. The chess game has just begun.

It's early December.

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Follow Anthony Gimino on Twitter and Facebook.

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