Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 12/30/11
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The record may not be what Arizona had hoped for or wanted, but the schedule -- in terms of preparing the Wildcats for whats ahead -- has been ideal. Its been a mixed bag of styles and paces in preparing for the upcoming Pac-12 race, the first for all 12 schools in what has been a disappointing pre-conference showing by all members. And yes, one must include Arizona, although the Wildcats have probably won the games they should have and lost the ones many thought they would. Arizona (9-4) opens Pac-12 play on Saturday at McKale Center against Arizona State. The game is sold out. "Sometimes we dont get enough credit in playing the teams that weve played," said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who all year has trumpeted UAs schedule. "(If) you look at where we are at, weve challenged ourselves." Arizonas strength of schedule is ranked 37th nationally in the latest RPI ranking. Thats helped UA gain the highest overall rating in the Pac-12, coming in at No. 50. Facing a tough schedule early, Miller said, can lead to being beaten up "mentally and physically," and through the first two months, Arizona has seen some of each. Freshman Sidiki Johnson transferred after not getting the playing time he desired. Freshman Josiah Turner has been suspended twice. Arizona even suffered a rare exhibition loss to Seattle Pacific, arguably helping the Cats find out early what type of improvements were needed. But how they navigate the road ahead will determine if they get another NCAA tournament bid and chance for another implausible run deep into the tournament after ending last year one shot away from reaching the Final Four. Clearly, this team is but a shell of last year -- the departure of star Derrick Williams has done that -- but Arizona shows glimpses of being good. Arizona obviously hopes to do better than third, its predicted finish by the media in preseason voting. Heck, a Pac-12 title is again within reach given the number of conference teams underperforming this season, particularly predicted winner UCLA. Simply, Arizona is at its best when going at an 80-points-per-game pace. Not long ago, 80 or more points was the standard for Arizona, as the Cats have gone 203-19 since 1998 when reaching the 80 mark. This year, UA has reached that number four times, and (not surprisingly) all four have been wins. "Bulldozer basketball is not what we do," Miller said. "We have to play fast with responsibility. ... Anything we can do to make that happen it is to our teams advantage." To its credit, Arizona attempts to do that most of the time. Of course, its also a function of the backcourt and how that group handles the situation and aggression (more on that later). Miller also said its much easier to talk about it than actually do it. After all, there is another team often trying to slow the game down. But to have its best chance, Arizona will need to get out on the break often. That will also help accentuate the other positives, specifically: Solomon Hill has had more on days than off days. Arizona doesnt have a go-to guy, but hes the closest there is to one. Because he can do so much with the ball distribute, shoot and handle he has to do a number of things for Arizona to have a chance. Hes been off but twice (albeit very noticeably) in losses to Florida and Gonzaga. He leads the team in scoring (12.2), rebounding (7.7), assists (3.1) and minutes played (31.1 per game). Those numbers alone tell you how valuable he is on an everyday basis. UA freshman Nick Johnson has come on the scene like many freshman guards before him (Mike Bibby, Gilbert Arenas, et al), although he has a ways to go to reach their level of production or success. But so far, so good for the player who has brought acrobatic dunks back to McKale Center. One never knows what to expect from Johnson, but mostly its been commendable. Senior guard Kyle Fogg took nearly 40,000 jump shots this past summer. He had a hiccup early, but it appears all that work is paying off. Hes hitting 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers and 43.5 percent of his shots overall, and hes second on the team in scoring (12.1) and first in steals (1.1). For a player who came in unheralded, hes making the most of his senior year. Same goes for senior Jesse Perry, who has had six double-doubles this season and is the team leader in field-goal percentage (54.3). Now the not-so-good items, but with plenty of time to figure things out: Arizona is what it is when it comes to height (or a lack thereof). Big, physical teams -- such as Florida, Gonzaga and Mississippi State -- have had their way with the Wildcats. Figure that Perry, at 6-foot-8, is the teams center and most consistent threat (both offensively and defensively) near the basket. Freshman Angelo Chol, 6-9, is more of an outside player in a big mans body. Junior Kyryl Natyazhko is also more of of perimeter-oriented big man. At some point, Perry will have to get some help. Johnsons play aside, the perimeter also needs help, ideally from Turner and sophomore Jordin Mayes. Each has been inconsistent but has had some promising moments. Turner is the guy Arizona needs to show up more and handle the point guard spot with more consistency. Its not any fault of his own given the circumstances of his situation, but Kevin Parrom has been slow to find his place in UAs rotation. Given his personal-life difficulties (his mom passed away nearly three months ago, shortly after he was shot in the hand and knee area while at home in New York), he has every excuse to be out of sync. He sees himself coming around slowly, as does Miller. If he does, Arizona should be in the hunt for the Pac-12 title. It just might be anyway given the state of the conference.
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