Arizona awakens to pull away from Valpo
Arizona struggled early, missing shots while giving up too many open ones. The Wildcats had trouble finishing, too, allowing more points in the final 4 minutes than the previous 16.
Good thing they played so well in between.
Coming off two disappointing exhibition games, No. 16 Arizona lived up to coach Sean Miller's work-in-progress billing by playing just well enough to open the season with a 73-64 win over Valparaiso on Monday night.
''We're not the 16th-ranked team in the country,'' Miller said. ''Maybe at some point we can get to that spot, but we still have a ways to go.''
Arizona lost star Derrick Williams to the NBA and has a roster full of young players, including the four heralded freshmen Miller recruited a summer ago.
The mix didn't work too well in a pair of exhibition games; the Wildcats lost to Seattle-Pacific and didn't exactly light it up in a win over Humboldt State.
Under the spotlight that comes with playing games that count, Arizona took another step in its progression.
Overcoming some early jitters, the Wildcats turned a close game into what appeared to be a rout by holding Valparaiso without a field goal during a 16-3 run to open the second half.
Kyle Fogg shook off a shaky preseason to score 16 points and fellow senior Jesse Perry picked up where he left off late last season with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Two of Arizona's freshmen chipped in some quality minutes, too. Nick Johnson had 14 points and six assists, while Angelo Chol added six points, six rebounds, four steals and plenty of hustle.
OK, so maybe the Wildcats let off the gas in the closing minutes, but it was a win, their 20th straight at McKale Center.
''I don't think we're a No. 16-level team yet, but we'll reach our ranking,'' Fogg said. ''We have shown improvement and we can only get better from here.''
Valparaiso got off to a solid start in coach Bryce Drew's debut, struggled against Arizona's pressure at the start of the second half, then nearly made a game of it in the closing minutes.
Trailing by as much as 20, the Crusaders put together a string of baskets in the final 3-1/2 minutes to trim the lead under double digits. They didn't make it all the way back, but it was at least an encouraging sign.
Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff had 18 points each for the Crusaders, who have lost 34 straight games against Top 25 teams since Drew beat Mississippi with a buzzer beater in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
''Overall, we can learn a lot from the game and improve on that,'' Van Wijk said. ''We fought very well, we kept fighting and fighting. We didn't put our heads down.''
Arizona completed a quick turnaround last season, coming within a few seconds of reaching the Final Four after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in a quarter century the year before.
The start of this season will be about filling holes and gaining experience.
Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year, is gone and point guard Lamont Jones transferred to be closer to his family, leaving Arizona without nearly 40 percent of its scoring from last season.
Swingman Kevin Parrom also is out, likely until early December, after being shot in the hand and knee while visiting family in the offseason.
The Wildcats still have plenty of experience because Miller used a deep rotation last season, but they will have to rely heavily on young and inexperienced players.
Arizona got off to a rough start against Valparaiso, turning it over three times while missing its first three shots — all by freshman Josiah Turner on difficult drives to the basket.
Leading by just two at halftime after playing so-so at both ends, the Wildcats turned up the defensive pressure and quickly went up 15 by forcing Valparaiso into turnovers and difficult shots. Valparaiso had 12 of its 18 turnovers in the second half and shot 5 of 20 from 3-point range overall.
''We were using our quickness and we have to because we're not a very big team,'' Miller said. ''The guys did a great job chasing cutters off staggered screens and really using our quickness to our advantage.''
Whatever growing pains Arizona might be going through, it was still going to be a tough start for Valparaiso in its first season under Drew.
The former Crusaders star continued a family tradition by taking over for his father Homer, who re-retired after replacing his other son, Scott, in 2003.
The new Drew gets a team that will have to rely a lot on newcomers and inexperienced players after losing 60 percent of its scoring and 40 percent of its rebounding. The Crusaders have just nine scholarship players and Drew also is dealing with bigger issues: His father and mother, Janet, were both diagnosed with cancer recently.
Valparaiso didn't seem intimidated at all playing at the McKale Center with all those NCAA tournament banners hanging from the rafters.
The Crusaders patiently ran their offense and forced the Wildcats into some difficult shots to hang close in the first half, trailing just 32-30 behind Van Wijk's nine points and five rebounds.
Valparaiso had no answer when Arizona turned up the defensive pressure to open the second half, though, missing its first eight shots while turning it over nine times. The Crusaders had just three free throws in the half until Matt Kenney scored on a drive with 11-1/2 minutes left to cut Arizona's lead to 48-35.
''Credit that to Arizona's defense,'' Drew said. ''Obviously, Sean does a great job with his team defensively and to go along with that a lot of our guys are learning a new system, learning new plays. It'll just take time before they get a rhythm playing with each other.''
Miller could say the same thing about his team.