It’s not a case of if Arizona is going to get manhandled by certain teams; it’s a case of how much.
“Tonight,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said after a 71-60 loss to Gonzaga in Seattle, “was the most we’ve been manhandled.”
Gonzaga’s big front line dominated from the start. The Bulldogs led 22-4. They had 16 offensive rebounds. They got 25 points and eight rebounds from power forward Elias Harris. They forced Miller to play big most of the game, scrapping his three-guard lineup after falling into a familiar early hole.
This is Miller’s conundrum: He doesn’t have a roster in which all the parts fit together.
If he wants to go big with a “true” center, still-raw freshman Angelo Chol and junior Kyryl Natyzhko don’t offer much in the way of scoring. If he wants to go small with more scoring potential, he doesn’t have much in way of a rebounder — at least against a team like Gonzaga.
“With certain lineups on the court, we’re really struggling to rebound,” Miller said on his postgame radio show on KCUB 1290-AM. “With other lineups, sometimes we’re struggling to score.”
What is Miller to do?
Chol should continue to improve — and he is defensively — but it’s hard to see him becoming a player that opponents have to respect on offense this season. Natyazhko is what he is — useful against teams with bigger bodies — and, well, that seems to be it. Senior 7-footer Alex Jacobson has battled back problems and hasn’t been a major factor throughout his career anyway.
Thing is, there isn’t a lot of personnel options.
Arizona’s four losses — including those to Mississippi State, San Diego State and Florida — have all come against teams that are aggressive on the glass and/or have talented big men.
“The big front lines, the big frontcourt players, the physical teams on the glass, have really hurt us,” Miller said.
“We have to find a solution to offset that. We have to do a better job with the guys who are currently out there in terms of boxing out. And some of it, from an offensive perspective, you have to negate their height advantage by being hard to guard.
“Tonight, if you think about it … they paid no price.”
Miller said the Cats failed to make Gonzaga pay for daring forwards Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry to shoot from the outside. The Bulldogs’ big men were more content to hang in the lane and make it difficult for Arizona to drive.
Hill and Perry made only five baskets, combining to hit 1 of 5 3-point shots.
“(Hill) took a couple of open ones early in the game and he missed,” Miller said.
“If a couple of those go in, that’s a much harder decision for Gonzaga. But that was their game plan. Any time you don’t guard one or two players, it puts pressure on your offense.”
Not only was Arizona out-rebounded 40-26, but being the less physical team meant that the Wildcats committed more fouls. Gonzaga went to the line 32 times. Arizona had only nine attempts.
Arizona battled back and all that to make the game interesting in the final few minutes, but the damage was done … and the Cats dropped to 7-4.
They have two more non-conference games this week — at home vs. Oakland on Tuesday and Bryant on Thursday — which won’t help the strength of schedule. Arizona will enter Pac-12 play — vs. Arizona State on New Year’s Eve — without a marquee non-conference win.
That conference season will begin without good answers to the pressing questions the Cats had several weeks ago:
3. Point guard play — Jordin Mayes has somehow managed only six assists in 207 minutes, and Josiah Turner has been in and out of Miller’s doghouse.
2. Go-to guy — Nope, no Derrick Williams on this team, nobody who can be instant and always-on offense.
1. Big men — Miller said it best: “Manhandled.”
Arizona made it too hard on itself by falling behind early again, but if there was a bright spot, it was that the Cats scratched back.
“I like the fact our team kept fighting,” Miller said. “It would have been easy for us not to do so.”