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UA transformation: Freshman brick-layers become sophomore shooting aces

Yeah, Derrick Williams can shoot the 3, but this is an even higher-percentage shot.
Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

I sat down with Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller last summer, and one of things I wondered about was where the 3-point was going to come from this season.

Arizona had lost its most frequent launcher — Nic Wise — and while Kyle Fogg and Jamelle Horne had posted high percentages, none of the other returning players averaged more than one 3-pointer per game.

Miller said the Cats would fine … although perhaps for the wrong reasons.

He pointed to a strong-shooting recruiting class, of which freshman guard Jordin Mayes has lived up to billing. Junior college transfer Jesse Perry has done so, too, but not for his 3-point touch. Freshman guard Daniel Bejarano, known for his shooting, hasn’t been a factor.

It was basically impossible to see this coming:

Derrick Williams, who was 4 of 16 from 3-point range last season, is 41 of 68.

Kevin Parrom, who was 2 of 14 last season, is 38 of 90.

MoMo Jones, who was 10 of 53, is 25 of 78.

OK, that last figure for Jones isn’t great — and he’s better when picking his spots from long range, not forcing the issue — but let’s throw all those figures together.

Williams, Parrom and Jones were 16 of 93 (17.2 percent) last season.

That trio is 104 of 236 (44.1 percent) this season.

Williams, a gym rat, focused on his shooting last summer. Parrom never really had a chance to show his skills as a freshman because of injury.

While we’re at it, let’s add in numbers from Solomon Hill (17 of 47 from 3-point range this season) and Kyryl Natyazhko (4 of 7). Now, we see that the entire sophomore class is shooting 43.1 percent after making a scant 18.1 percent last season.

Meanwhile, Fogg, Horne, Mayes and Brendon Lavender have been shooting threats.

“You can’t focus on just one person; that’s the good thing about our team,” Williams said.

That’s been the season-long theme. That will be the theme Saturday against UConn in the West regional final.

It’s a superstar matchup between Williams and Huskies’ point guard Kemba Walker. Different sizes, different position, of course, but maybe it will be a wash in terms of production.

If so, which of the other players — the ones who don’t get the focus — will determine the game?

That’s a roll of the dice.

Why drive when Jordin Mayes is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range? Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

For Arizona, the depth of shooters has translated into a dangerous offensive team, one that is on pace for its best 3-point shooting accuracy since the 1994-95 team shot at 41.3 percent. These Cats are at 40.3 percent.

In a team in which Miller repeatedly has said has little margin of error (except against Duke, perhaps), Arizona has needed almost all of those percentage points.

Speaking of which …

In what Miller said “would be the greatest upset in NCAA statistics,” Williams is ahead of Steve Kerr’s school-record percentage of 57.3, set in the 1987-88 season. Kerr too way more attempts (199) than Williams; nonetheless the sophomore is sitting at 60.3 percent.

“The percentage he shoots doesn’t lie at this point,” Miller said at Friday’s press conference in Anaheim.

“He’s shooting the ball with confidence,” the coach added.

“Clearly, it’s not a good feeling if you leave him open and you’re the other team. He’s selective in his 3-point shooting. He’s not ‘hunting’ 3-point shots. For the most part he takes good 3s. A wide-open shot for Derrick has become a great shot for our team. The bigger the game, the better he’s played and shot. It does certainly add some concern if you’re guarding him.”

Williams hit 5 of 6 from behind the arc — all in the first half — against Duke on Thursday.

Miller doesn’t know where that accuracy comes from; he’s been saying for month that Williams doesn’t exactly hold 3-point clinics in practice.

“Like Coach said, I’m a ‘gamer,’ and when the lights come on it’s a whole different story,” Williams said.

“When I’m feeling it, I’m feeling it, and when it’s not going in, it’s not. I think that’s a good thing about it. When I know I’m not going to make a 3, go right to the post and get a foul on somebody. That’s what I do best.”

Shooting 3-pointers seemed to be one of the things these Wildcats might do least best this season.

But isn’t it great when freshmen become sophomores?

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