TUCSON, Ariz. — It’s not like Sean Miller didn’t warn everybody. He said his playing rotation could include just eight, maybe nine players.
Eyebrows were raised. The roster reconsidered. From a casual observer to an on-the-beat reporter, it seemed he had so much more to go with. In fact, there was talent galore on paper, possibly two deep at every position.
So how could a team with such an apparent bevy of talent have so little to work with on the bench?
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The answer: When you’re attempting to establish an identity and a consistent winner, you go with what you know, and that mean’s the established or best players.
And it might not even be eight or nine. It’s been more like six, maybe seven for Arizona this far. Freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been a standout No. 6 — maybe the best sixth-man in the country — and sophomore guard Gabe York has been an occasional No. 7, having already been yanked from a game due to miscues.
Short benches aren’t unusual for good teams in big games. Saturday will be another one, as No. 1 Arizona faces Michigan in the unfriendly confines of Ann Arbor.
“You’ll see that it’s a fantastic home court,” Miller said of Michigan’s Crisler Arena. “A well-coached team and a team that wants to defend its home court like we do at McKale. What that means is we have to play a great game and be at our best. We could maybe go there and play a great game and not win. But trips like that will only make us better.”
With that in mind, expect Miller to go about seven deep. He’ll go with the players he has the most confidence in — and, T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski comprise a very good group to get through the hard times. Throw in the gritty Hollis-Jefferson and the sharpshooter York and, well, there’s not a whole lot else needed most of the time.
But Miller will need his bench at some point. If not now, in mid-February when players typically hit walls late in a long season. Not every player feels the fatigue, but many do.
“We want to play our bench,” Miller said. “Part of our team’s development through this month is to continue to develop team and bench. (York) didn’t play much (against UNLV last weekend), and that’s not good for us or Gabe.
“We need for him to return to form.”
Shortly after saying that, Miller said six, seven or eight guys have to be ready. It’s very apparent that it won’t be more than seven for now, at least not usually.
“We have to continue to develop those guys,” Miller said of his bench. “And on their end, they have to continue to be ready.”
Who that will be is anyone’s guess, although Miller continues to say Zach Peters is still a work in progress because he’s missed so much time the last couple of years with concussion issues. Peters wasn’t available against New Mexico State because of an illness; he wasn’t even on the bench. The other suspects in the hunt for playing time are junior Matt Korcheck (he played three minutes against NMSU), senior Jordin Mayes (three minutes) and freshman guard Elliott Pitts (three minutes).
“It’s going to vary throughout the year,” said Johnson. “We’re going to need guys to step up. Rondae has played well off the bench. We’re definitely going to need (York) to stay with it. Coach is good about that, about keeping guys in the right mindset to prepare for later on. We will definitely need everybody.”
Johnson pointed to Pitts, who has been practicing well and shooting well.
“He needs to get stronger and get our defensive concepts down,” Johnson said. “Zach is getting his confidence back.”
Until then, the top six or seven will have to continue to carry the load — and the Wildcats’ No. 1 ranking.