Miller wary of season opener

Mike Schmitz

In early November of last season Arizona held a closed scrimmage against Utah, and the Utes played without starting center Jason Washburn and starting power forward Jay Watkins.

The Wildcats won by only five points.

“I think that if you look at Utah’s season a year ago, it’s almost hard to believe that a team with 30 wins in late October, early November played Utah an even match,” said UA head coach Sean Miller. “We just got better by leaps and bounds.”

Arizona went on to go 30-8 and make an Elite Eight run in the 2010-11 season while Utah finished the year 13-18, missing both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.

Although this year’s Wildcats are a new team with a much lower starting point, they’re hoping to mirror that progression from last season. Seattle Pacific and Humboldt State were this year’s Utah.

The competitive Division II programs pushed Arizona’s buttons and exposed its weak points, something Miller thinks will help the Wildcats down the road.

“To me, they allow us to really learn the most about our own team and get better,” Miller said. “As we approach Monday, I’m glad that we played both teams and I think we all recognized that our starting point isn’t very high.”

The Seattle Pacific loss was an eye-opener to Arizona’s freshmen after a glitzy and glamorous Red-Blue Game. The Humboldt State squeaker proved as a wake-up call to Arizona’s underperforming leaders.

“I think it helped us. Going against these teams put us in the right mindset coming off the Red-Blue Game,” said senior forward Jesse Perry. “A lot of guys felt confident, like we really did something, which we didn’t. I definitely think these two games helped us for the long run.”

Miller knew the Wildcats would miss forward Derrick Williams and guard Momo Jones. He knew it would take time for the freshmen to develop. But these two games showed him exactly where Arizona is and have given him an idea of how to put the pieces to the puzzle together as far as his line-ups are concerned.

“These two opportunities and 15 practices, I think we as a staff have a much clearer direction on what we have to do to be successful,” Miller said. “After the game we all realized, ‘Uh oh, we have to get a lot better.’”

Miller said he’s “incredibly not comfortable” about where the Wildcats are as they prepare to host Valparaiso on Monday, and he can’t be happy with his team’s deficiencies as the season opener creeps closer.

But maybe the Seattle Pacific game will serve the same purpose that last season’s Utah game did. Maybe the Wildcats have been woken up.

“I know that we’re not that good, and we have to get better. We’re going to get better, we are,” Miller said. “Maybe down the line when it comes together, we’ll look back at our starting point and say, ‘Boy, we’ve really come a long way.’ That’s our goal right now.”