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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Wise, Hill excel in 2nd year”

    Michael Schwartz
    Michael Schwartz

    Schwartz on Sports

    The Arizona men’s basketball team has reached the midpoint of its Pacific 10 Conference slate, and if the second time through the conference is anything like the first it should make for quite the exciting ending.

    With the glass half-full view, the Wildcats finished the first half 5-4 in conference play in what the Ratings Percentage Index rates as the nation’s second-toughest league. The glass half-empty view says the Wildcats are just a game ahead of the Pac-10’s No. 8 team, as six squads are separated by a mere game.

    When considering Arizona’s 1-3 start, its worst since 1983-84, as well as the competitiveness of the Pac-10, it’s quite an accomplishment that the Wildcats reeled off four straight wins before Saturday’s collapse at then-No. 5 UCLA. But that combined with the slow start doesn’t impress UA interim head coach Kevin O’Neill.

    “”I’m not happy to be where we are, not at all,”” O’Neill said. “”We shouldn’t be happy to be 5-4.””

    Forward Chase Budinger and guard Jerryd Bayless have played like the stars everybody knew they were entering the year, but the Wildcats have been helped by the stellar play of sophomores Jordan Hill and Nic Wise, who have contributed beyond expectations.

    Hill has turned into an interior force at both ends and has even cut down on the foul trouble that plagued him early on in the season. The forward gives Arizona a scoring threat inside and makes opponents think twice about driving the lane as a quality help-side defender.

    He can be found all over the conference’s leader board, ranking second in field goal percentage (61.1 percent), third in blocks (1.91 per game), sixth in rebounding (8.0) and 15th in scoring (12.9).

    “”If he’s not on the floor we struggle, not just to score inside but the outside shots because now nobody has to help inside,”” O’Neill said. “”The more that guy’s on the floor the more effective everyone else is going to be.””

    After making a splash at the end of last season, Hill’s development was one of the biggest keys entering this season. Although he still needs to improve his one-on-one defense, he has developed into the post threat the Wildcats needed him to be.

    Hill’s potential could be seen late last year, making the emergence of guard Nic Wise a bigger surprise.

    Wise did not even play in eight Pac-10 games last year and scored in just four of them. For the season he averaged 1.9 points per game in 8.2 minutes per contest.

    This year Wise has asserted himself as one of the Wildcats’ five best players, alternating between the fifth starter spot and a sixth man sparkplug role he usually plays in crunch time. In Pac-10 play he’s averaging 11.8 points and 4.7 assists per game, while leading the conference in steals (1.86) for the season.

    “”Nic’s been one of our most valuable players,”” O’Neill said. “”In any game we’re without Nic we’re in trouble.””

    With Hill and Wise combining to average just over 22 minutes per game last season, they have certainly proven coach Lute Olson’s theory correct that players improve most from their freshman to sophomore years.

    “”I think what (Nic) and Jordan are doing in their second year even though they were here last year is very impressive, because for the most part they’re not true freshman, but they didn’t play enough minutes to be called regulars in my mind or anything like that,”” O’Neill said. “”So I think what those guys have done is really, really important for our team.””

    On the flip side, freshman Jamelle Horne has become a non-factor.

    Horne arrived at Arizona with the expectations of a five-star athletic forward who had been compared to former Wildcat Richard Jefferson. Horne has flashed his athleticism at times and looks to be the team’s best pure leaper, but an inconsistent offensive game and some defensive lapses have relegated him to a deep reserve role.

    Horne averages just 3.2 points and 2.3 rebounds per game and has scored in just one Pac-10 game while not even playing in four of them.

    He seemed to get his chance with back-to-back starts Jan. 19 at California and Jan. 24 against then-No. 6 Washington State.

    But he did not do much to contain California forward Ryan Anderson, who scored 30 points on 10-for-13 shooting with Horne on him some of the time. Horne also surrendered open shots to WSU forward Daven Harmeling that allowed him to score eight quick points. Horne did not return against the Cougars after his poor four-minute effort and may have let his last opportunity to move into the rotation slip through the cracks.

    Meanwhile, all the talk of center Kirk Walters forming a dynamic shot-blocking duo at Hill from beginning of the year has not come to fruition. Walters has been serviceable when opponents play big but has not made a dent other than that, averaging 0.8 points and 1.3 rebounds per game.

    Earlier in his career Walters was seen as a player with talent who just needed to develop, but as a redshirt senior it doesn’t look like that’s the case.

    He’s not much of an offensive threat and cannot stay with most athletic big men, so his only use is when the Wildcats find it worth slowing down their offensive attack against a plodding big man on the opposition.

    With Horne and Walters not playing up to expectations, Arizona must be ecstatic that Hill and Wise have turned into pleasant surprises.

    They’ll need to continue improving at this rate if the Wildcats want to better their 5-4 conference mark next time through the league.

    -Michael Schwartz is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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