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Teaching moments: Arizona’s opening win leaves room for steady improvement

Mark Lyons

Mark Lyons shot only 5 of 14 from the field but scored a team-high 17 points. Photo by Casey Sapio-US PRESSWIRE

I can’t get too worked up about college basketball on Nov. 11.

USC is playing at UCLA for the Pac-12 South football title this weekend. Oregon is trying to dash to the national championship game. Arizona has a bowl date to await.

College basketball is played over a low flame, and, so, while I really like the potential of this Arizona Wildcats basketball team — I mean, really, really like — it was hard to work up panic or frustration or much of anything as they muddled through their season-opener Sunday.

The Wildcats didn’t lead for the first 15 minutes, 1 second of the season and didn’t open up a double-digit advantage until the final few minutes before pocketing an 82-73 win over a Charleston Southern team that you’ll be taking a long look at as an upset pick in March if it makes the NCAA Tournament.

This was point A. There’s a long way to go to zenith.

“We screwed a number of things up,” said coach Sean Miller.

“A lot of times you do that in November, and you hope you can learn a lesson after a win. We’ll be able to talk and teach, and that is what this time of the year is so much about. Learn from mistakes; don’t make them again; get better at the things you need to.

“Obviously, we have a lot of young talent that I know will get better by leaps and bounds through the month of November.”

The most predictable thing I saw in the opener was Miller reverting to a smaller lineup. Although his stated plan has to been to avoid playing senior Solomon Hill at power forward at all this season, it seemed inevitable that it would happen. There are just going to be so many occasions in which the team’s best lineup is this:

Senior point guard Mark Lyons, sophomore shooting guard Nick Johnson, senior small forward Kevin Parrom, Hill and a big man du jour.

That was the way the 12th-ranked Cats finished the game and it helped them overcome what Miller called a “tricky” Buccaneers team that played a 1-2-2 matchup zone defense and spread the floor offensively.

“I expected that,” Lyons said of the late lineup.

“We’re the senior leaders. Obviously, in a tough situation and down the stretch, we want our leaders on the floor. It just made the best sense, and Coach made the right adjustments to put us on the floor at the same time.”

Freshmen big men Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley are going to be fabulous. But they won’t leap and bound at the same time over every new situation, every new college-level scheme they see in November and December … and into the conference season.

While the bigger Tarczewski and Jerrett struggled in the middle of the zone and sometimes got lost defensively on the perimeter, the more nimble Ashley stepped up. Isn’t having depth great? The big man du jour had 12 points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes.

“Tonight was his night,” Miller said.

Parrom, whose passing and savvy were effective in the middle of the zone, played the final 8:41 of the game. The Cats were plus-15 during his 20 minutes off the bench. He had six points, five assists and five rebounds.

“When you watch Kevin do what he did in the second half, you could certainly see where we’re trying to get him on the court a little bit more,” Miller said.

This is a well-constructed, well-balanced team. Youth and experience. Size and athleticism. Shooting ability. Defense. Depth. Flexibility.

Who’s going to take the big shots? How about Lyons? He had 15 of his team-high 17 points after halftime, and he plays with the typical fearlessness of a New York point guard. His six assists and no turnovers were nice, too.

The first game wasn’t a rout. No big deal. Settle in. It’s a long season. We’ll see how it all cooks in the next couple of months before the flames get higher.

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