by AK Murthy
Imagine that I told you a hypothetical college basketball team had just one senior on its roster. Furthermore, this lone senior came into the program as a highly lauded recruit and has developed a solid perimeter shot to go with his great size and athleticism. Now imagine that I asked you to describe this hypothetical player’s role on this hypothetical team. Undoubtedly, I would get responses to the tune of “The leader. Steps up when facing adversity. Heart and soul of the team. Irreplaceable.”
That’s a pretty good cross-section of the adjective cloud most Arizona basketball fans would come up with to describe the hypothetical player mentioned above. After all, the Wildcats had just one senior for the 2009-10 season, Nic Wise, and he turned out to be all of those things. He was the leader, he stepped up when facing adversity, and he was the heart and soul of the team. If there was ever a player that was truly irreplaceable, it was Wise in 09-10.
A year later, Arizona once again has just one senior on its roster, Jamelle Horne. But the adjective cloud that fans would create describing him would not be nearly as flattering as the one above. In fact, it would be downright mean. No player over the last 25 years of Arizona basketball has so often and effectively drawn the ire of the fans like Horne has.
Why has Horne been so frustrating to the fans? It’s hard to say exactly why he hasn’t developed as expected, but regardless, Horne detractors rejoiced Wednesday when PGU broke the news that junior Jesse Perry would start in his place against Robert Morris. It was just the second game in the last two seasons that Horne has not started.
On the surface, the lineup change could be attributed to match ups. Robert Morris does not have a significant contributor over 6’6″ and preys on drawing bigger defenders to the perimeter, so Sean Miller could have been capitalizing on his team’s size advantage. After all, Perry is a much more paint-oriented player than Horne, who seems most comfortable on the perimeter. A simple shot chart will tell you that. But digging deeper unearths a more troubling reason behind the switch.
After averaging 12.2 points through the first seven games of the season, Horne’s scoring average is down to 5.8 over the last six games. For a player that was told by the coaching staff that he needed to make big changes over the summer if he wanted to be a major part of the team, this is not the trajectory you want to see.
What’s troubling, though, is not Horne’s scoring. It’s his effort on the glass that has been reason for worry. Like his point totals, Horne’s rebounding has dropped off in the same period of time, but he has been especially weak on the offensive boards. After being one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the country last year, Miller has made it clear that this squad is focused on rebounding their misses. And while Derrick Williams and others have made tremendous leaps in this category, Horne has not. He has managed to grab just 11 offensive boards in 13 games this season, a far cry from the production you expect out of a starting power forward.
As a point of comparison, Perry has double the offensive rebounds in 56 less minutes of playing time, second only to Williams. Perry has also managed to get to the free throw line 40 times this season, compared to a paltry 19 attempts for Horne. With Horne trending downward and Perry starting to emerge on the bench, the lineup change was inevitable. What’s important is where both Perry and Horne go from here.
By all accounts it looks like Perry will retain the starting position, and it would be well deserved. Perry has posted career games in each of his last two outings, averaging 13 points and 5 rebounds on 66% shooting. Even before his minutes began to increase, he was one of the more efficient players on the roster.
Looking beyond the stats, though, Perry gives Arizona something more than numerical production. His combination of tenacity and energy around the rim is infectious. He gives an already undersized team a more traditional post presence. Most of all, he gives Arizona a toughness in the paint that the program has never been known for. It’s exactly those reasons why Perry will continue to start, and why it actually looks like he could blossom into a more significant contributor than anyone expected him to be in his first year at the D-1 level. If Perry ends up taking his game to a new level this year, look no further than the last two games as the reason why.
The point heretofore has not been to explain how Perry’s emergence has coincided with and led to Horne’s decline, or to spell out why coming off the bench is a death sentence for Horne. In fact, I’d rather argue exactly the opposite. Despite being demoted to a lesser role, Horne still has a chance to be a big part of the team’s success, perhaps a bigger part than he was before.
It may be counter-intuitive to think that a player could actually become a more significant contributor by moving from the starting lineup to the bench. Most players wouldn’t, but Horne is not most players. If we were to omit the negatives in his adjective cloud, we would be left with terms such as “Explosive athleticism. Plays above the rim on offense and defense. Can electrify the audience. Sparkplug.”
If you can accept Horne for the player he is and not the player the fans want him to be, it’s blindingly obvious what kind of role he really should be playing. Just look at Horne’s career game, which came against Kansas during his sophomore season. Horne came off the bench to record 19 points and 13 rebounds, both career highs at the time, as Arizona beat KU at McKale Center. Horne was absolutely magnificent in that performance. He was explosively athletic. He played above the rim on offense and defense. He electrified the audience. He was the sparkplug.
The best part about Horne’s career night against KU two years ago wasn’t the numbers he put up. It was the ease and fluidity with which he played the game. Simply put, he just looked natural out there, which has not been the case for Horne this season. If we could bottle Horne’s mojo from that day and give him a fresh serving before each game, he would be an All-American.
So while it may seem that Horne’s move to the bench brought him one step closer to the door, that is not the case. He is and always has been a player that thrives on energy plays and crowd rousing dunks. He’s the type of player that can heat up in no time at all, and when he does, look out below. In other words, he’s perfectly suited to coming off the bench in Miller’s substitution pattern. That is, if you accept Jamelle Horne for who he is, not who we want him to be.
AK Murthy is a staff writer at PGU, and he has been covering the Arizona Basketball beat since 2005. His writing has made it’s way through the blogosphere and on multiple major publications such as the Seattle Times. He lives in southern Arizona with his brother and a crippling addiction to UA Hoops. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org