This certainly was not the type of performance Wildcat fans were expecting when they poured into McKale for the 7:30 p.m. (MST) tip off. Still, they were treated to a basketball game that was played at a high level by both teams, a level that was painfully slowed by whistle-happy officials who stopped play 44 times. NAU had 27 team fouls to Arizona's 17, resulting in an un-rhythmic flow that clearly favored the Lumberjacks whose game plan was to work the clock.
Arizona's Jordon Hill fouled out in the game's final minute while five Lumberjacks finished the night with four fouls apiece.
Chase Budinger led all scorers with 25 points on 7-15 shooting. Freshman guard Jerryd Bayless made his Wildcat debut by chipping in 18 points and five assists. More impressively was Bayless' on ball defense as he hawked opposing guards all night long. Fellow freshman Jamelle Horne got the start and played well, grabbing five rebounds and disrupting several Lumberjacks shots in the paint.
Senior guard Jawann McClellan scored 15 points, making all nine of his free throws. His jumper at the corner of the key along with Hill's short turnaround in the game's final two minutes were enough to hold off the Lumberjacks who rallied from 16 points down to make things interesting late.
Despite winning, the Wildcats experienced many of the same problems that plagued them at times last season. Their transition defense was suspect in that they did a good job of getting back to defend the lane, but did a poor job in identifying spot up shooters who knocked down a string of three-pointers in the transition game during a pivotal 17-4 Lumberjacks run in the second half. Their on ball defense also looks to be a work in progress as several defenders were beaten off the dribble, which forced unwanted double teams that again left Lumberjacks sharpshooters with open looks on the perimeter. Finally, the Wildcats again struggled to sustain strong defensive efforts throughout the entire possession as NAU was able to score on several occasions late in the shot clock.
Still, Arizona has improved, defensively, although not that much. Bayless and back-up guard Daniel Dillon applied great on ball pressure all night, while McClellan and Horne rotated well when help was needed. Hill also played well, but foul trouble early forced him to back down from his usual aggressive style of play.
On offense, Arizona did not shoot well despite getting many open looks. At times, they shot the ball way too early in the shot clock which left them out of position to crash the offensive boards. When they did make the extra pass within the flow of the offense, they did however knock down shots and those they missed were heavily contended on the glass. The Wildcats had six offensive rebounds in the first half, finishing with 11 for the game.
Budinger looked as smooth as ever on the offensive end and looked more assertive with the ball than he did last season. In fact, every time he touched the ball, you could sense he was looking to score and that's a good thing for the Wildcats as they're still searching for a true go-to-guy in the clutch. McClellan appears to possibly be that guy as he did not hesitate in taking two big shots down the stretch. His missed one and made the other, which extended a three-point lead to five. Hill also did not back down from the challenge as he in fact backed down his defender with one minute to go in the second half, revealing a nifty post move before shooting the ball through the net.
For a season opener, I'll take the result, sharing in the philosophy of interim head coach Kevin O'Neill who after the game said a win is a win. Still, there are plenty of concerns and most start in the middle. It's painfully obvious that this team needs Kirk Walters and Fendi Onobun to get healthy and get healthy quick. They also need Mohamed Tangara to get more playing time as this team, with its current smaller lineup, is just not thick enough inside to contend with more physical teams.
If Hill gets into foul trouble, which of course he did tonight, as good a role player as Bret Brielmaier is, he simply can't dominate the paint as Arizona needs someone to do. With physical teams like Virginia and Kansas looming in the next two weeks, Arizona needs to find away to get a true center on the floor as soon as possible. If they do, this team will get the balance they need on both sides of the court. If they don't, some more unexpected close games and potential losses could be in the future.
Overall, Arizona played with the level of energy we were promised. Bayless and Horne are true freshmen talents who proved tonight that they are more than capable of contributing significantly. McClellan displayed tremendous athleticism while Hill showed that he can score inside and guard the paint when he's on the floor. Similarly, role players Dillon, Brielmaier and Nic Wise all provided strong minutes off the bench.
Arizona certainly needs to play better, but they don't need me to tell them that. They'll go back to work tomorrow in preparation for Saturday night's match up against Virginia, and I'm confident they'll get many of these concerns worked out before again taking the court.