Wildcats fans got a glimpse of the future last night and it's a bright one.
Three freshmen and three sophomores played more than 11 minutes each and combined to score 58 of Arizona's 81 points. Led by freshman point guard Jerryd Bayless' near triple-double (20 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists) , the other youthful ‘Cats followed suit in playing inspired basketball that wore down UMKC and allowed Arizona to pull a way in an Arizona-dominated second half.
While the offensive numbers of many ‘Cats were impressive, it was their defensive effort that really impressed. Arizona held UMKC to 34 percent shooting in the second half and 35 percent for the game. UMKC had 16 rebounds at the half, but only finished with 22. Arizona meanwhile pulled down 16 boards of their own in the second frame to finish with 29 for the game.
The Kangaroos were stifled all night in trying to get open looks against a swarming Arizona defense. The Wildcats, for the second straight game, went small in starting three guards. The quicker Wildcats set the tone early by picking up high with an aggressive man-to-man defense that flustered the Kangaroos all night. Despite committing only nine turnovers, the Kangaroos rarely got an open look and even when they did their shooters were usually off balance from having to rush their shots.
Bayless, in only three games, is showing tremendous skills on both sides of the floor but it is his defensive intensity that unfortunately is garnering the least hype. Not for me though. His ability to defend the entire floor makes him an invaluable component to this team's puzzle.
Bayless is not alone though.
The entire team seems content on playing defense and those who don't won't play.
Freshman Jamelle Horne learned that fact the hard way. After playing 29 minutes in the season-opener, Horne never touched the floor in game two. Last night he played 11 minutes and made the most of them, scoring four points and hauling in two rebounds. While those numbers don't exactly jump off the page, Horne's ability to alter shots put many Kangaroos in uncomfortable positions while trying to score. When Horne learns to not rely so much on his athleticism and instead work to move his feet on defense and box out underneath, he's going to be extremely dangerous. What I love about Horne is that although he missed three shots, he never hesitated and shot the ball confidently within the framework of the offense.
One player who not only shot with confidence but also got the desired result was Dillon. The senior guard was 4-4 from the field and 3-3 from the line. He made all three of his three-point attempts and although he drew four fouls that limited his playing time, his intensity on defense and focus on offense was noteworthy.
What most impressed me was how he responded after being forced to sit on the bench for almost a 15 minute stretch that consumed parts of both the first and second half.
Dillon, who started the game, did not start the second half because of the foul trouble.
When he did re-enter the game, he immediately attacked the basket, drew a foul and made the shot. He finished the three-point play by sinking his free throw. Seconds later he swished a three-pointer from the corner in front of the Wildcat bench.
Up to this stage in the game, the freshmen backcourt duo of Bayless and Laval Lucas-Perry, along with Jawann McLellan, was proving to be a formidable lineup. Sitting on the bench, Dillon was stirring and when he re-took the floor it was almost as if he was sending a signal to those trying to take away his minutes that this senior was not going to sacrifice playing time without putting up a fight.
Dillon answered the call and in the process surprised many, including me. I've always been a fan of Dillon's for his hard-work ethic and positive attitude. This season, the form on his jump shot looks to be improved. While I don't expect him to be Arizona's leading scorer, I do expect to see him starting more and more games as the season wears on because of his heady play, strong defensive effort, and patience in only taking good shots.
Dillon wasn't the only story of the night, though. In fact, there were many. Bayless' near triple-double was a definite headliner and if it wasn't for the freshman making some rather freshman mistakes (he had six turnovers) Bayless would've played a near perfect game. Sophomore big man Jordan Hill followed Dillon's lead in making 5-6 from the floor while sinking 4-5 from the line. He also finished the game with as many blocked shots, two, as fouls. My personal favorite storyline, though, was the play of freshman guard Lucas-Perry.
Lucas-Perry played 24 minutes, knocked down two three-pointers, grabbed five rebounds and handed out two assists. What really caught my eye was his play at the point. Lucas-Perry looked in control from the second he took the floor. He handled the ball with care, played incredible on-ball defense, and looked like the perfect compliment to Bayless. He reminded me of one player in particular and while my comparison may seem far-fetched now because of this player's career accomplishments, I see many similarities in their game.
Lucas-Perry, to me, plays a lot like UCLA's Darren Collison. He's a defensive-oriented point guard who has a tireless motor. He can run the show from the point and actually has better form on his jump shot than Collison does. Can he hit clutch shots like Collison, play lockdown defense for an entire game, and handle the most pressure-packed situations as Collison has already proven he can? Well, that remains to be seen, but the similarities are definitely there.
Now for the reality check.
Although UMKC is not from a major conference, they did provide the Wildcats with a stiff challenge in the fact that they run multiple defensive sets and weren't afraid to change their look often. The played man-to-man defense, as well as both two-three and one-three-one zones. When they switched defenses, it took Arizona way too long to identify the set and adjust their offense. Too many times, the Wildcats looked confused on offense and wasted precious seconds on the shot clock readjusting. What's more, Arizona did not effectively attack the UMKC defense well all night. As television analyst Bob Elliot astutely pointed out, "go to the area where the defense is not." Arizona failed to do that so many times during the first half that even though Elliot's comment was painfully obvious, it was equally warranted.
Against the two-three zone, Arizona was running four players on the perimeter with only Hill underneath. More disturbing, Hill rarely broached the top of the key which is a primary attacking point against such a zone. With Arizona's smaller line up, I get the fact that Arizona's inside presence was limited. Still, Budinger should've been playing the high post and getting the ball at the top of the key where he can score. In this situation, Hill would be able to post up down low and the high-low feed from the inside could've been devastatingly effective. Similarly, of all games to give Mohamed Tangara a look, this would've been it as Hill could have played the high post and Tangara could've been down low. Regardless, I can't see attacking a two-three zone with only one big man. It makes no sense to me. The four out forced Arizona to swing the ball around the perimeter and attack with dribble penetration from too far out. It looked unorthodox and was one of the reasons Arizona only had one offensive rebound at the half.
In UMKC's one-three-one set, Arizona's four out was much more effective as the open area became the extended baseline. Arizona succeeded against this set and the fact that the Kangaroos kept going back to it in the second half seemed like a tactical error by their coaching staff to me.
As the Kansas game nears, the lack of a duel post threat scares me. Hill is great. There's no doubt about it. But he can't go it alone for 40 minutes against Kansas. If he's forced to Arizona will have to shoot lights out against a tough Kansas defense and frankly, on the road, I don't like Arizona's chances with Hill going it alone down low.
I did see many great things last night from Arizona which gives me great hope for this year's team. One, I think more Wildcats dove on the floor or flew out of bounds chasing after loose balls last night than last year's team did over the course of the entire season. Two, Arizona learned from their mistakes against Virginia and extended their defense well beyond the three-point arc for 40 minutes. Three, Arizona has five guards (Bayless, McClellan, Dillon, Lucas-Perry and Nic Wise) who are quickly creating a deep, three-guard rotation for Arizona which has been the cornerstone of successful Arizona teams in the past. Four, every single player who saw minutes last night was focused on defense and played very, very hard. Five, the days of Arizona being out hustled by opponents, plain and simple, are over. Kevin O'Neill and the staff won't allow it and the players won't tolerate it.
Tougher opponents are indeed ahead, but every game is a learning experience and as I said in my Virginia post game commentary, how the Wildcats play against UMKC and Adams State will have a positive or negative effect in how they play against Kansas.
So far, so good.