There’s a gaping hole in the basketball infrastructure in Tucson, Az., much like the conference in which Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats play.
Last week, the Pac-12 owned two pieces of real estate in the Associated Press top 25 rankings, with the Cal Bears at No. 20 and Arizona at No. 23. An embarrassment of riches it was not, not for a traditional power hoops conference whose most storied program – the UCLA Bruins – began the season ranked in the top 20 only to fall from the elites and join the peasants after a 1-4 start.
Now, the Bears provide sole representation of the conference – ranked No. 24 at 6-1 – as Arizona slipped out of the national ranking after losing to San Diego State last week. A win Tuesday evening against New Mexico State lifted the Wildcats to 5-2 on the season.
There’s time, of course, for the Wildcats to regain a respectable status among the nation’s alpha teams, time for the Bears to reel off a string of wins before facing No. 20 UNLV in three weeks, time for Ben Howland to diagnose – and then cure – his Bruins, time for the Stanford Cardinal to continue their winning ways, time for Terrence Ross to reinvigorate the Washington Huskies. There’s time for all of that, but as of now, it doesn’t appear the Pacific-12 Conference will be particularly adept at pulling upsets and earning national respect from pundits and pollsters. The whispers have commenced, and they are harsh and damning.
There’s not an imbalance of power in the Pac-12, but rather a sheer lack of it.
Come February, when the thick of conference races dominates the discussion and bubble teams craft their closing statements, the national perception of the Pac-12 could hinge on a team like Arizona. The squad facing the most daunting of questions, the question that keeps college coaches driving through the loneliness of night on the recruiting trail’s back roads: How do you replace a lottery pick, the talent who individually shouldered the scoring burden while collectively leading the group to a deep March Madness run? Do you replace him?
That’s what Arizona faces as it searches for its rhythm and identity in this young season. The Wildcats won’t replace Derrick Williams individually. And it will take a hell of a group to replace him at all, but that’s the task, the challenge beckoning. Williams is a generational talent for most college coaches – they aren’t blessed with the opportunity to coach many players who possess an array of physical gifts and talents whose sum equates to this:
Last season, Williams averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He ranked third in the nation in true shooting percentage at almost 70 percent (accounts for all shots, including free throws) and drained 56.8 percent of his 3s. On top of that, Williams led the conference in floor percentage – the ratio of scoring possessions to total possessions – at a little more than 62 percent and took home the Pac-10 Player of the Year award.
Yes, Williams had help leading the Cats to the Elite Eight, but it all came in the form of appetizers, finger food to Williams’ 22-ounce porterhouse. Lamont Jones ranked second in scoring at 9.7 points per game, and Solomon Hill pulled down the second-highest rebound total at 4.7 boards per game. There were others, but they were merely the Bentley’s lug nuts. This isn’t written to undermine the importance of the appropriate complementary pieces in place, but rather to accentuate Williams’ impact.
The Wildcats will continue to evolve as they complete their non-conference schedule, but the guess here is that by the time Pac-12 play begins, this year’s version of the Cats will be a banging bunch, a team that rebounds the ball exceptionally and shoots it adequately from outside. They won’t, however, be the force that battered the Duke Blue Devils in the Sweet 16 last season. Williams scored 32 in that game, and then he took those skills to the NBA.
This group can’t be that, but it can be a mechanism powered by many. Through seven games, Hill leads the team in scoring with 12 points per game, while senior forward Jesse Perry adds 11.1 ppg and leads the Pac-12 in rebounding at 9.7 boards per game (Hill ranks fourth in the conference with 7.9 rpg). Senior guard Kyle Fogg is scoring 11 points per game, as is freshman guard Nick Johnson, who is also shooting 44 percent on 3s.
And then there’s the wildcard.
By March, Kevin Parrom might not be the best story of the Pac-12, he might be the best story in the entire country. Earlier this fall, Parrom received a call to return to New York to visit his mother who was fighting cancer. His mother, Lisa Williams, lay in a Manhattan hospital bed, and doctors didn’t believe she had much of a chance to make it through the basketball season. After visiting his mother one evening in September, Parrom returned to his father’s apartment in the Bronx. That night, two armed men broke into the apartment – one was allegedly jealous about a woman Parrom hung out with, a woman Parrom said was a friend – and shot Parrom twice, once in his right leg just below the knee and once in the hand.
Parrom nor his father told his mother what happened because they didn’t want her to be burdened with his health scare while she was battling a beast of her own. Weeks of rehab followed, and doctors didn’t know if Parrom would return to good health in time to play this season. How his leg would respond to rehab, nobody knew.
Parrom made his season debut on Nov. 13 against Ball State, a month after his mother passed away.
Miller is trying to work Parrom back slowly, playing him about 14 minutes per night. What can the junior bring to the Cats? Williams ranked third in the Pac-10 last season in offensive rating at 123.06 (theoretically, how many points he would score if given 100 possessions). As a sophomore, Parrom ranked second, just a tick better than Williams.
If Parrom returns to full health and brings the same level of efficiency to a team relying on numerous contributors, he could perhaps be the guy who takes Arizona from a Pac-12 contender to a Pac-12 champion, with another tournament run ahead, and the country would surely be rooting for the story when the Cats took the court.
But as magical as the tale sounds, as much as it rocks your heart and locks your throat, it’s a tale that resides in an abyss of unknowns, much like Arizona and the entirety of the Pac-12 conference.
For now, the rest of the college hoops world rushes on by, on to primetime match-ups and big-time things.
The Pac-12 whistles while it works to crack the top 25.