2013-14 College Basketball Preview - Arizona Wildcats - ESPN
2012-13: 27-8 (12-6 Pac-12) Lost to Ohio State 73-70, Sweet 16
In-conference offense: 1.06 points per possession (1st)
In-conference defense: 0.98 points per possession (5th)
Five years after Lute Olson's retirement and the turbulent few months that followed, the Arizona Wildcats have firmly re-established themselves as the class of the Pac-12 under Sean Miller. Despite failing to win either the regular-season crown or the Pac-12 tournament, Arizona was the conference's best team a season ago and reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in the past three years. The Wildcats should be back.
Projected starting lineup
Pos. Name Year
C. Kaleb Tarczewski Soph.
F. Brandon Ashley Soph.
F. Aaron Gordon Fr.
G. T.J. McConnell Jr.
G. Nick Johnson Jr.
Miller followed that up by completing his second consecutive recruiting class ranked in the nation's top five by ESPN RecruitingNation, demonstrating the Wildcats' renewed ability to attract the West Coast's best players. With the country's No. 4 (Aaron Gordon) and No. 21 (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) recruits joining three holdovers who were also rated in the top 25 (Brandon Ashley, Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski), this looks like Miller's most talented team and the clear favorite to win the conference.
Like any coach, Miller is a bit more conservative in his assessment. "We certainly have a number of talented players," he said, "but I don't look at this as by far the most talented team because we don't have that experience that sometimes goes with the talent that makes it all go together."
Look no further than last season's preseason conference favorite, UCLA, for an example of how a talented young team can fail to meet preseason expectations. With so much depth, however, Arizona doesn't need everyone to live up to the hype.
The Wildcats' most important player might be the starter most lightly recruited. After two hyper-efficient seasons at Duquesne, point guard T.J. McConnell transferred up to play at a national power that never would have considered him out of high school. McConnell gives Arizona a pass-first point guard who can also score, a novelty in the Miller era. Since Nic Wise graduated in 2010, Miller has used combo guards like Momo Jones, Josiah Turner and Mark Lyons at the position. McConnell is a better fit with all the talent elsewhere on the roster.
With McConnell, fellow junior Nick Johnson (a two-year starter), and senior reserve point guard Jordin Mayes, the Wildcats have plenty of experience in the backcourt. Their youth is primarily up front, where Arizona is loaded with budding stars. The brightest is Gordon, the school's highest-rated recruit in the 2000s. In April, Gordon picked the Wildcats over Kentucky, Oregon and Washington, immediately elevating their ceiling from conference power to national contender.
Gordon's ability to play both forward spots gives Miller the flexibility to choose between a pair of McDonald's All-Americans alongside him, giving the team two different looks. Fellow freshman Hollis-Jefferson is a versatile, defensive-minded wing who can be part of a smaller, more athletic lineup. Sophomore Ashley, who started 21 games last season, is an outstanding rebounder who gives Arizona the size to match up with anyone in the country. And anchoring the middle is Tarczewski, another top-10 recruit whose offensive game may begin to catch up to his defensive prowess during his sophomore campaign.
Shooting is a bit of a concern after the Wildcats lost four of their five players who made more than 20 3-pointers (Johnson, a 39 percent 3-point shooter, is the lone holdover). But Arizona has size, athleticism and versatility. The Wildcats also figure to have one of the nation's most balanced offenses, with the team's top seven players all capable of creating their own shots. Don't be surprised if that translates into another deep NCAA tournament run -- and maybe even Arizona's first trip to the Final Four since 2001.
Here's a look at the positional breakdown.
If McConnell plays anything like he did at Duquesne, he'll emerge as one of the country's best point guards. A box-score stuffer, McConnell ranked among the nation's top 100 in both assist rate (87th) and steal rate (12th) in his final season in the A-10, while finishing just outside that group in true shooting percentage thanks to 55/43/84 shooting on 2s, 3s and free throws. His biggest "weakness" is that he rarely gets to the line to take advantage of his accurate foul shooting. The reliable Mayes will back up his third different starting point guard in four seasons. The Wildcats could use him to shoot 3s at something like his freshman rate (45 percent) after two down seasons in limited attempts.
Miller says Johnson is on the same career path as Solomon Hill, who went in the first round of last June's NBA draft after an impressive four years in Tucson. After two seasons of using possessions at an average rate, Johnson could play a bigger role in the offense. His 48 percent shooting on 2s and 39 percent accuracy beyond the arc suggest he can handle more shots. Four-star recruit Gabe York is poised to step into a larger role after playing sparingly as a freshman. His shooting ability will be useful off the bench.
At either forward position, Gordon should be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. He can post up smaller defenders and beat bigger ones off the dribble. And Miller raves about his defensive potential. Gordon prepped for his freshman campaign by winning MVP honors as the leader of the USA's U-19 national team that won gold in Prague. Arizona fans should enjoy him now, because Gordon will be a surefire top-10 pick next June. Conversely, Hollis-Jefferson should stick around slightly longer. He's the rare perimeter recruit who is more ready to contribute at the defensive end, where his energy and length make him potentially disruptive. For now, Hollis-Jefferson will be most effective offensively in the open court.
With fellow freshman Grant Jerrett heading off to the NBA, Ashley should play more minutes in Year 2 on campus. He's a fine defensive rebounder and quality shot-blocker who tied Hill for the team's best accuracy on 2-point jumpers at 40 percent, per Hoop-Math.com. Now Ashley will look to create more of his own offense.
The team's leading rebounder, Tarczewski has the size to deter opponents in the paint. Largely a bystander on offense as a freshman, he should play a larger role after working to develop a midrange game and hone his post moves. Miller wants his guards to look for Tarczewski. Behind him, the Wildcats have Kansas transfer Zach Peters, who is eligible immediately and has four years of eligibility but still must be medically cleared after a series of concussions forced him to sit out last season. Their other option is JC transfer Matt Korchek, a 6-10 rebounder and defender who redshirted last season.
Projected conference finish: 1st