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A Modest Proposal: Scaling Back Starter Minutes

August 8th, 2014 News 9 Comments

GabeYork
Victor Shamas

The bar is set high for this year’s Wildcats, and with good reason. Sean Miller’s team seems as loaded with talent as any in school history. The roster includes three McDonald’s All-Americans, two seven-footers, possibly the best point guard in the country, the Junior College Player of the Year, and an impressive recruiting class.

With a squad that is possibly 11 players deep, the distribution of playing time becomes critical. National championship teams rely on great team chemistry, which does not happen when guys are sitting at the end of the bench wondering where their talents might be more appreciated.

One of the greatest challenges that Miller will face this year is the matter of distributing 200 minutes per game (40 min x 5 players) among 11 guys. This works out to an average of 18 minutes per player, but we know that those minutes will not—and should not—be distributed equally.

The guys who are most productive should play. On the other hand, the coaching staff has a responsibility to get the most out of their players. Teams that go 10 or 11 men deep tend to overachieve. Just look at the run that Archie Miller’s Dayton Flyers made last year. With lesser talent than the Cats, the Flyers got just as far in the NCAA Tournament, though there are a variety of other factors that contributed to Dayton’s magical run beyond depth.

The difference between a seven-man rotation and a ten-man rotation can be enormous. Just consider the success of Rick Pitino’s teams at Kentucky or Nolan Richardson’s at Arkansas, both known for relentless pressure and deep rotations. It’s the difference between wearing down your own players or your opponent’s.

To help make Sean Miller’s job this year a little easier (and also because the long hot summer has given us few basketball-related options other than thinking about next season), I propose the following distribution of minutes:

POSITION PLAYER MINUTES
5 Tarczewski*

Ristic

Ashley

25

10

5

4 Ashley*

Hollis-Jefferson

Victor

20

15

5

3 Hollis-Jefferson*

Johnson

Pitts

10

20

10

2 Johnson*

Pitts

York

Allen

5

10

15

15

1 McConnell*

York

Allen

Jackson-Cartwright

25

5

5

5

* Denotes the starter at each position

The beauty of this setup is that it makes use not only of the team’s depth but also of its flexibility. Ashley can play the 4 or 5, Hollis-Jefferson can play the 3 or 4; Johnson can play the 2 or 3, and York and Allen can play the 1 or 2. Starters average 25 minutes per game. Key non-starters ( Pitts, York, and Allen) play 20. And freshman not named Stanley get either 10 minutes (Ristic) or five (Victor, Jackson-Cartwright).

Can you imagine the matchup problems that such a system could create? In Miller’s first season at Arizona, he substituted so often and so many players at the same time that it felt like watching a hockey game. This substitution pattern may have been necessitated by the limited talent and experience on that team.

Keeping the starters’ minutes under 30 lowers the risk of injury. We know from last season that a single injury to a key player can be an absolute back-breaker come March. When Ashley broke his foot against Cal, the Cats were undefeated. After that point, the team went 12-5, which is respectable but certainly not championship-caliber.

Just as important is the ability to keep team members happy at a time when disgruntled basketball players are transferring in unprecedented numbers. From 2007 to 2012, the transfer rate for Division I players jumped from one percent to nearly 11 percent. Angelo Chol is an example of an Arizona player whose transfer may have proven costly to his team. We can only speculate about the difference he might have made in Ashley’s absence. And we wonder if Chol regrets sitting out a year when he could have been playing valuable minutes on an elite team.

Will Victor and Jackson-Cartwright be upset if they only get five minutes a game? Maybe. But they will like it even less if they only play in garbage time. And freshmen should have to prove themselves anyway, earning their way into the rotation.

The distribution of minutes proposed here can change instantly. All it takes is a few great practices or impressive game performances to raise eyebrows and inspire a re-evaluation of the depth chart. Gilbert Arenas arrived on campus in 1999 as an unheralded freshman, but by the end of the red-blue scrimmage, he had established himself as a rising star.

Who might be the pleasant surprise on this year’s team? The only way to find out is by letting them play.

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9 Responses to “A Modest Proposal: Scaling Back Starter Minutes”

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  1. Phil

    August 8, 2014
    Reply

    Well,the 2 guard minutes are 45 minutes, but minor detail.

    I agree with your concept but no way Miller will only play his starters 25 minutes. More likely he will set an 8-9 man rotation. A 7 man rotation would be a fail. 9 or 10 would be better

  2. victor

    August 9, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks for catching that. I agree that a 7-man rotation would cause chemistry problems and be a big waste of talent. An 8- or 9-man rotation is probably realistic. But could you imagine what could happen with a 10- or 11-man rotation? Miller’s team could pressure the ball for 40 minutes and probably run a lot of other teams off the court.
    And just think about how fresh everyone’s legs would be in March, with no single player going more than 25 minutes per. The key issue is trust in the bench. Obviously, there’s a drop-off in talent after the starting five. How could there not be? That lineup (Ashley, Zeus, McConnell, RHJ, and Stanley) may possibly be the best not just in the country but in UA history. It’s important to note, though, that the guys coming off the bench aren’t exactly chopped liver. York was a starter for much of the year, Allen looks impressive, Ristic seems to be a legitimate college center (that remains to be seen, of course), and I’m predicting that Pitts will be the big surprise on this year’s team (after overcoming mono, working hard on his game this summer, and adding muscle). The big question marks are always the freshmen. Will Victor and PJC be ready to compete at this level? If they are, then Miller will have huge problems figuring out how to distribute minutes. But that’s a great problem for any coach to have!

  3. Jeff

    August 9, 2014
    Reply

    Arizona’s starters are too good to receive only 25 minutes per game and the bench isn’t very strong. Maybe lack of playing time causes a bench player to transfer, but the reserves are all replacable. Only if winning games isn’t Millers priority or Arizona is blowing out everyone would 25 minutes per game sound right.

  4. Buzzard

    August 9, 2014
    Reply

    Great write up ! Minutes are pretty much where they ought to be. Awesome Gil example of how distributing some earned minutes could find us a diamond in the rough.
    BTFD!

  5. beldenrdb

    August 9, 2014
    Reply

    I like the thought of a 10 man rotation. Looking at the specifics of your proposal, though, I worry that you only have the five starters on the floor together for a total of 5 minutes (limited by Johnson’s 5 mins at the 2). You have Johnson doing shifts with Rondae at the 3, mostly. I think at the least, Coach will have the starting five on the floor…together…for the first 5 mins of each half at a minimum and probably more than that.

  6. victor

    August 9, 2014
    Reply

    Yes, but four starters could be on the floor together for 20 minutes. My guess is that the first substitution will be for Johnson. As good as he might be, he’s still a freshman, and rotating him out potentially puts a junior in his place.

  7. nightwave

    August 10, 2014
    Reply

    Miller is a smart coach. He will utilize his players on an “as needed” per game basis. He will play his starting five as a unit enough so that they click and can be counted on when we are in challenging games and at the big dance. I agree that 11 players are great for depth and wearing down other teams. I agree that 11 players are needed when the NCAA tournament requires us to put fresh bodies on the floor against certain teams. But the standard of a couple of good subs coming off the bench gives us the very good team that is seasoned when the big games come.

  8. Doug Brodess

    August 11, 2014
    Reply

    Victor: In theory, your minutes distribution chart is spot on. But Miller, like most college coaches, don’t play 10 or 11 player rotations. Even with all of the depth, I still see him using an 8 or possibly a 9 player rotation.

    McConnell may not play the 32 MPG that he did last year, but he will be on the court more than 25. Ashley, RHJ, Zeus and Stanley Johnson are likely to get between 28-30 minutes per game.

    While increasing the starters’ playing time beyond 25 minutes appears to be a “waste of talent,” this would also maximize the best talent, which is Miller’s highest priority.

  9. mvpreed2

    August 14, 2014
    Reply

    Even though that seems like a good plan to try and follow I don’t see this team next season having TJ/RHJ/Ashley/Zeus play close to 30mins/game.
    Miller doesn’t seem like the type that will do that when he knows that 4/5 of our starting lineup could possibly be gone after this season so why limit their minutes and possibly prevent them from pursuing their dream?
    And all it takes is one minute for a player to get hurt but the chances go down with the minutes they play.

    I honestly think that Miller might go 8-9 deep this season with that 8th and 9th guy getting strategic spot minutes.

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