Oregon St. last saw Arizona on the road late last season, and the Wildcats have undergone maybe even more change than the Beavers in the off-season, with the departure of Derrick Williams and "Momo" Jones, so we caught up with Kevin Zimmerman with the Arizona Desert Swarm to get Beaver fans an update on the state of affairs with the 'Cats before the two meet up again Thursday evening.
Oregon St. fans have been pretty pre-occupied with the "Northern Division" teams (even though we aren't using football divisions in basketball), having started with series against the Washington and Bay Area teams. Give us a general size-up on how Arizona's season has gone.
Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry seem to be playing the best, and with the most consistency of any of the 'Cats. Has their progress been "on schedule" as they assume rules of leadership?
It's been a rocky one for sure. The Wildcats have suspended one freshman, point guard Josiah Turner, and kicked another, big man Sidiki Johnson, off the team. Meanwhile, they're still trying to figure out how to replace Derrick Williams and Momo Jones (Jones transferred to Iona for family reasons).
As far as wins and losses, Arizona doesn't have any signature victories, nor terrible losses. Oddly enough, Arizona's overtime loss to then-No. 12 Florida might be the Wildcats best-played game. The bludgeoning they suffered against Gonzaga at Seattle would be their worst-played outing. In general, what you're going to see is a very good defensive team that will keep itself in most any game, but the Wildcats are still sometimes lost on offense.
Hill I would say is "on schedule," considering he's been the most talented player on the team not named Derrick Williams the last two years. Now with Williams gone, he's shown that he wants to be the leader, but he's still inconsistent in terms of pressuring himself too much. Even on bad nights though, he's shown he's vital to the teams success in the paint.
Perry on the other hand is a bit ahead of schedule. Arizona's not known for bringing in JUCO transfers, and Perry arrived last season as a junior without anyone knowing much about him. Turns out he's pretty good. The biggest thing you'll notice about Perry is that he's not very athletic -- but he knows it and makes up for it with scrappiness and great court awareness.
Kyle Fogg has always been capable of playing great at times, yet seems to almost disappear at other times. Looking over various game summaries and stat sheets, it appears that is still the case. What's causing Fogg to be up and down? Are some opponents doing a much better job against him than others?
I think outside of Tucson, expectations about Fogg have been unfair. The senior guard is a role player if anything, but that doesn't mean he's not very important. Fogg is limited to being a spot-up shooter on offense, and that's something he's pretty good at. He played off Derrick Williams, and before him, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill very well. Now, there's not that star to get him as many open shots.
So we're left with what Fogg is good at. A sound player to stretch the floor, but more importantly, a leader in the locker room and Sean Miller's best perimeter defender. I think Fogg's focus on defense might take a bit away from his offensive number as well.
The rest of the starting backcourt, freshman Nick Johnson and sophomore Jordin Mayes, seem to be having up and down seasons so far as well, but that would seem reasonable, given their limited experience. Assess their progress for us. Are they "on course", or are 'Cats fans getting nervous about them?
Mayes was recently replaced by freshman Josiah Turner as the starting point guard, and all three have had up and down years. I think of anyone, Mayes has been a bit disappointing because he showed a lot of promise and blossomed in the NCAA tournament run last season. Like Fogg, he's not much more than a spot-up shooter and a solid guy to get the team into the offense.
Turner is about the polar opposite. He's an NBA-type playmaking point that is still finding his way on an off the floor. His suspension was about getting his head right and committed to the team, and that was a big setback, so he too I'd say has yet to live up to the hype.
Johnson has been the most consistent, although he's struggled in the past two games. What you'll notice about Nick is that he's very sound in all aspects. He's got a smooth jump shot and has freakish athleticism on par with your Mr. Cunningham. Teams finally started paying attention to him, which is why I think he has been quiet the past two games.
When Derrick Williams left, it left a tremendous hole in the 'Cats' inside game. And as you have noted, Arizona lacks any significant player with substantial size, and opposing big men are causing all kinds of problems for the 'Cats as a result. Coach Sean Miller seems to have done a real good job generally with personnel transitions; how did he get caught without someone who can at least fill the kind of role Williams did? Is there help on the way?
There doesn't seem to be help on the way this year. 7-foot center Kyryl Natyazhko has struggled mightily with speed (i.e. almost everyone) and that leaves freshman Angelo Chol as the only option for a legitimate big man. Chol provides some length and athleticism, but it hasn't been enough to override his big learning curve on both ends as far as playing within any sort of system. Like I mentioned in the first question, the loss of Sidiki Johnson hurt as well.
Next year, Miller's got a commitment from a Top 10 player in center Kaleb Tarczewski, and everyone is hoping he's the answer, though you never know with big men like that.
Finally, Tucson has historically been a very tough place to play. How is the state of mind of the 'Cats' fans and students currently? What kind of atmosphere are the Beavers, who, admittedly, will not have much support traveling with them for a weeknight game, going to encounter Thursday night?
I'm a 22 kid fresh out of college, and so my perspective could be off. But I think the fanbase still isn't where it was back in the last two decades. That said, there's going to be 12,000 fans in McKale Center at minimum.
From the past few seasons, I've noticed that McKale sometimes takes half a Pac-12 schedule to get back to that intimidating place it once was. In non-conference games, the crowd is laid back and it won't matter to UA fans as much until Arizona is fighting for something (NCAA tournament seeding or Pac-12 Championship). So for you guys, I'd say you're hitting McKale in the best-case scenario for an opposing team.
That's a lot of great insight into a team we don't see or hear that much about.
It should be a very interesting game Thursday night, with lots to watch for from both teams!