If there’s such a thing as the injury bug, then the 2015-16 Wildcats walked into the hive. Obviously Arizona is missing their senior center, Kaleb Tarczewski, who happens to be one of the most experienced players in program history. But they’ve also taken hits to a number of other players, resulting in much fluctuation in Sean Miller’s rotations.
But that’s part of the game. Bad luck can happen to anyone, and a program like Arizona certainly has the pieces to pull themselves out of the injury hole. What we’ve witnessed so far this year has been the ebb and flow of a team that is learning how to play without major components on the fly, resulting in some high high’s and some low low’s.
The Wildcats’ 68-63 win was the perfect microcosm of that. In the first half, Arizona was flat and looked outgunned in many aspects of the game. But at some point after halftime the switch flipped, and that on the fly learning manifested itself in some inspired play.
What Arizona learned in that game is that they are a team prone to hot streaks, and that they need to ride the wave when they feel that surge coming. Against the Zags, senior Gabe York found his stroke from distance and the entire team adapted to make him the central focus of the offense. It was the ability to adjust within the game that made the difference, and proved a valuable lesson for the team moving forward.
Then in the very next game against a feisty Fresno State team, a similar pattern unfolded. Arizona looked off kilter for most of the game, allowing the Bulldogs to stay close and even steal the lead. But at some point in the second half, the switch flipped again and Arizona’s momentum resulted in another hot streak that changed the face of the game.
This time it was behind freshman Allonzo Trier and his 27 points, which tied the most for a first year player in Sean Miller’s tenure at Arizona. Trier was fierce when attacking the rim and had his outside game clicking, and his offensive moxie fueled the Wildcats’ game-changing run.
So we’ve seen the formula for Arizona’s success this season: stay within striking distance, then go for the knockout punch when the offense gains momentum. Of course, that’s not an ideal plan to win at the highest level of college basketball, but it’s one that will certainly win a lot of games in the Pac-12 this year.
Until they are healthy again this team will be forced to continue with that script, riding the hot hand and adjusting on the fly. But the truly encouraging aspect is that once Tarczewski is 100%, the team will get a huge boost that could put them over the top. Being forced to dig deep and explore who they are as a team will prove invaluable when all the pieces are back in place.
The bottom line is that the team is finding ways to win in spite of the injuries that have plagued them so far this season. The learning curve that we are experiencing now is actually a blessing in disguise, as that adversity will ultimately make them a savvier, stronger team by the end of the year.