Let’s just once and for all get rid of the silly notion that this year’s Arizona Wildcats are going to be anything like last year’s. This is a new team, with a different identity.
And how crazy is it that we’re using last season as our measuring stick for success? Last year’s historic 21-0 start was the best in school history, a feat that puts that team squarely in discussion for best Wildcat hoops squad ever. Those who have been following the program for any significant time know that statement comes with some weight.
So we’ll be clear that last year was last year, and avoid the pitfall of trying to evaluate this team within the context of what happened a season ago. To understand how this team is unfolding on the court requires a fresh perspective, one that leaves the 2013-14 season in the record books and focuses on the here and now.
The main undercurrent in the team’s play so far has been a lack of cohesion. Whether on defense or offense, the Wildcats go in and out of focus at times, not due to lack of talent but due to the collective inexperience of that talent playing alongside one another.
When it comes to offensive firepower, the Wildcats have exorbitant wealth. With play makers at all five positions, there’s no reason why Arizona’s offense shouldn’t be a well oiled machine.
Except for the tricky concept of cohesion.
Right now the Wildcats are operating as a group of pieces, an assembly of individual talents stacked on top of each other. Cohesion is the force that will meld those pieces together, to the point where you stop seeing each gear turn and you start to see the machine working as a whole. It’s when the individual actions of each player always fall in line with the greater team concept, in everything that they do.
That’s something that only comes with time. No team can add as many new players as the Wildcats have and expect to start the year as a cohesive unit. What we should be monitoring is the players’ growth in this area, and how the team’s identity is forged in the mean time.
If there is one similarity between last year and this year that’s worth mentioning, it’s that the team once again starts the year looking for a leader.
Sean Miller has repeated over and over in press conferences that this team will follow the triumvirate of Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and TJ McConnell. But that’s a new role for all three of them, a situation made more precarious by the balancing act of a leadership role split three ways.
So it’ll take those three some time to settle into their roles as captains, which will go a long way in bringing the team together and creating a more polished on court product.
But it’ll also require the rest of Arizona’s talented players to gel in their roles.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been the shining example of that so far, thriving in a 6th man role despite being the team’s most dynamic and possibly best player. Not only has he accepted that position, he’s recognized what his sacrifice has meant to the team’s success and has been vocal about his willingness to continue coming off the bench.
Let’s not gloss over how special that is. A McDonald’s All-American, who just got the starting job after spending a year on the bench, is willing to give it up because he thinks it’ll make the team better. Star basketball players of this generation don’t often think that way, and Arizona fans should consider themselves lucky to have one on their side.
It’s things like Hollis-Jefferson’s choice to come off the bench that build cohesion throughout the season. Hopefully Stanley Johnson, who is still figuring out the college game, is a beneficiary of the example RHJ is setting.
Cohesion is different than chemistry, which this group has. The players on the team have complementary skillsets, and they like playing with and for each other. There’s no denying the team’s chemistry, even if it is budding.
But cohesion is much more subtle. It’s most evident when the game situation or opponent puts stress on a team and, strand by strand, things start to unravel. At the moment when some teams might drift apart, cohesion is what pulls them back together and allows them to claw their way out.
Whether Arizona develops it or not, they’ll have the talent to go far. But the underlying theme of the early season will be how much they coalesce, and how much this collection of talented players can redefine themselves as a talented team.