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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Depth key to Arizona’s dominance this season

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Rebecca Noble

Arizona men’s basketball guards Elliott Pitts (left) and Gabe York (right) watch as Arizona defeats Texas Southern 93-72 during the Round of 64 in the 2015 NCAA Tournament in Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on March 19. Pitts and York are two of Arizona’s premier bench threats and huge reasons why Arizona has won 33 games so far this season.

Last season, Arizona men’s basketball struggled with bench depth as the season progressed. Arizona head coach Sean Miller repeatedly went around seven deep at most in many games earlier in the season, which resulted in fatigue when his starters would play almost 40 minutes a game.

In fact, after Arizona’s disappointing loss against ASU last season, Miller said “it’s no fun when only five are playing.”

That problem is gone this season.

Miller and the Wildcats have not only improved their depth on the bench but also won games largely on the contributions of their bench.

That bench depth starts with Gabe York. The junior guard, and former starter, was the key in the victory over Ohio State in the Round of 32 with five 3-pointers and 19 points.

But any Arizona fan already knows that York will knock down big shots when it matters. This season, he averages 22.9 minutes per game and shoots 39 percent from deep.

“He did a great job going in there and knocking down shots,” Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski said after the OSU game. “When you have guys like Gabe and Elliot [Pitts] and everyone coming off the bench, it makes us such a deeper and better team.”

Following York is Arizona’s other hot shooter: sophomore guard Elliot Pitts.

Pitts provides key shots and is a defensive-minded player. In fact, Miller praised Pitts’ defensive work ethic that he displayed against the Buckeyes, even sometimes guarding future NBA lottery pick D’Angelo Russell.

“Elliot has some qualities of both Rondae and T.J. [McConnell] defensively,” Miller said. “He’s much taller than T.J. and might even be more laterally quick than Rondae, as hard as that is to believe. But he’s a good third person to be able to mix in, play through foul trouble [and] use our depth.”

With teams like Wisconsin and Kentucky possibly in the Wildcats’ path, York and Pitts will need to be lights out to disrupt defenses.

York’s success on the court could not come at a more perfect time.

As a freshman, he played less than six minutes per game in just 15 games. He could have left and transferred to another program. Wildcats fans recently saw that move from LSU transfer Craig Victor.

Instead, York has become an Arizona savior overnight and has a chance to play on the Staples Center floor, the court he dreamed about playing on.

“Gabe’s a very good shooter,” Miller said after the OSU victory. “You know, if you followed us I would say over the last six weeks, you look at his points per game, his minutes per game, he’s really emerged. Tonight was another great example. We needed him and he delivered. He’s really a big, big part of what we’ve done all year long.”

This team is all about delivering, even if it means off the bench. That’s been the main difference from previous Sean Miller teams to this one.

Backup freshman point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright provides the pass-first mentality that Arizona needs when McConnell needs a breather. In fact, Jackson-Cartwright’s speed and explosiveness left many defenders struggling throughout the season.

Coming off the bench for Tarczweski are 7-foot Serbian freshman Dusan Ristic and 6-foot-10 senior Matt Korcheck. Although Korcheck has seen little action this season, the Tucson native delivered a game-changing dunk against Stanford earlier in the year.

Ristic, on the other hand, has seen as much as 19 minutes this season. The backup center provides an inside threat with a bevy of tricky post moves.

Arizona’s bench has produced in key moments time and time again this season — just ask UCLA. The Wildcats’ bench combined for 27 of the team’s total 57 points in the Feb. 21 game against the Bruins.

After Arizona’s heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin last season, Miller, who has never been to a Final Four, talked about crossing into that unknown world in the future.

“We have to keep doing things the way we’ve been [doing], and one day we will cross that line — I know it,” Miller said after the Elite Eight loss.

That line will be crossed if the Wildcats can continue to rely on their bench down the road. With arguably one of the best starting lineups in college basketball this season, the bench’s play is the key to a National Championship.

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Follow Matt Wall on Twitter.

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