Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller studied his players in warm-ups, especially center Kaleb Tarczewski, who had fallen on his hip a couple of days earlier.
Miller didn’t like the way his 7-footer was moving, so he called an audible before the season-opener against Cal Poly.
“We went to the next guy,” Miller said after the 73-62 victory at McKale Center on Friday night. “And Gabe was that person.”
Sophomore guard Gabe York — the guy who couldn’t crack the rotation as a freshman, the guy who never played more than 12 minutes in a game, the guy who scored a total of 13 points in conference play — is now the next man up, which says a lot about how far he’s come.
And he didn’t whiff on his starting opportunity, presented to him 30 minutes before tip-off.
With Miller going with a smaller lineup, York had his career game — 12 points, five rebounds and 2-of-4 shooting from the 3-point arc in 26 minutes.
“I felt pretty good out there,” he said.
“Coach told me before the game just to play basketball, and he’s told me that since June. Just the confidence boost he has given me, it’s a way for me to … go out and play the way I used to.
“Last year is behind me and it’s a brand new year.”
York’s rise in the rotation was one of the storylines of the season-opener for sixth-ranked Arizona, which could have put more distance between itself and Cal Poly if not for a 20-of-36 performance from the 3-point line.
The Mustangs were hot early, too, hitting five of their first eight 3-point attempts, but the Wildcats defense — which should be their calling card this season — asserted itself and held Cal Poly to 37 percent shooting overall (20 of 54).
“Our upside is, I think, significant,” Miller said.
“But we just have so many players in new roles that you can’t expect us to be a great team right now. We’re far from it. We have to work to become it and, hopefully, health will be on our side.
“I do think down the road we’ll be a much better team than you saw here tonight.”
York is definitely in a new role, and his shooting ability will be key for a team that lacks a prolific lights-out ace. His first 3-pointer came after Cal Poly closed within 37-36 at the start of the second half. His second 3-pointer was a nail, pushing the Cats’ lead to 68-56 with 2:41 to go.
His lack of defense cost him the trust of the coaches last season, but he drew a charge Friday night and was “in the right place a number of times off the ball,” according to Miller.
“He’s bigger and stronger,” Miller said of the 6-3 York.
“Last year, he looked like a young colt out there as a freshman. He’s heavier, he’s stronger, he’s practiced, he’s worked really hard for his opportunity. He’s a really key player for us.”
As it could very well be all season, it was a balanced offensive effort for Arizona, which had six players in double figures. Freshman forward Aaron Gordon, slowed a bit by a nagging groin injury, posted the first of figures to be many double-doubles, posting a team-high 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“If he makes his free throws, he has not a good night, he has a great night,” Miller said.
Gordon was 2 of 6 from the line, but Miller showed no concern for his team’s lack of proficiency from the line. Small sample size. He has seen better percentages in practice.
Tarczewski came off the bench against smaller Cal Poly and scored 11 points in 19 minutes, although he failed to grab a rebound. Miller said the hip injury shouldn’t be a lingering issue.
Brandon Ashley had 11 points and nine rebounds. Nick Johnson also scored 11. Freshman wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson put in 10.
“In a season-opener, a lot of unexpected things can happen,” Miller said. “The exciting thing about our team is that we will only get better as we keep moving on.”