Johnson, newcomers make up talented squad for No. 6 Wildcats
This preview and more on Arizona and the Pac-12 are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
No. 6 Arizona Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-8 (12-6 Pac-12)
Postseason: NCAA Sweet 16
Coach: Sean Miller (96-43 at Arizona)
Pac-12 projection: First
Postseason projection: NCAA Elite Eight
Miller told them to keep the money.
“We’re moving on,” says Arizona’s coach. “We’ve got better things ahead of us.”
That’s the working description of Arizona basketball. Somehow, after losing All-Pac-12 seniors Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons, after watching in dismay as coveted prospects Grant Jerrett and Angelo Chol left school, Miller believes the Wildcats can improve on a 27-win, Sweet 16 finish.
Even though Arizona has gone to 26 NCAA Tournaments over the last 28 years, the Wildcats have rarely had more talent, top to bottom, on their roster. “Losing what we did would cripple a lot of programs,” Miller says. “But I believe we’ve established ourselves now to the point that we can handle it and move forward.”
The most identifiable player on Miller’s fifth Arizona team is apt to be freshman forward Aaron Gordon, MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game and, two months later, MVP of USA Basketball’s U19 gold medal championship club.
“One of the reasons I chose Arizona was because I believe we can win the national championship,” says Gordon, a slashing, up-tempo transition player. “It’s all set up to be a great year.”
Center Kaleb Tarczewski started all 35 games as a freshman, shooting .538 from the field and becoming a physical force near the basket. He is likely to become more of a scoring threat as a sophomore; he averaged 6.6 in his rookie year.
He’ll be joined by sophomore Brandon Ashley, an athletic and versatile 6-8 combo forward with shooting range to 20 feet. Ashley shot .525 as a freshman, starting 22 games, and no longer will have to share time with Jerrett, who opted for the NBA Draft after one season.
Gordon will start at small forward, although he has the size and inside scoring instincts to play closer to the basket. Miller will have another strong option at small forward: Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a McDonald’s All-American, projects as a defensive stopper with the versatility to guard opposing players at shooting guard, wing forward and power forward. His shooting touch will need some work, however.
Miller made the frontcourt more formidable when he added junior college big man Matt Korcheck, a spirited rebounder and defensive specialist who sat out the 2012-13 season. He replaces Chol, who transferred to San Diego State in an attempt to get more playing time.
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Miller’s new point guard is Duquesne transfer T. J. McConnell, who was the 2011 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year and a year later finished third in the NCAA in steals. He also shot .417 from 3-point range and enters the year as the acknowledged team leader.
“He’ll be their heart and soul,” says Hill, who was the UA’s leading player a year ago. “He’ll establish a toughness we haven’t always had.”
Nick Johnson, a two-year starter at shooting guard who averaged 11.5 points as a sophomore, must improve his perimeter shooting to help open the inside for Tarczewski and Ashley. Johnson was tied for third on the club in 3-point baskets last year, with 42. He has been more proficient as a penetrating, drive-to-the-basket player. They need him to do less of that with Gordon around.
The Wildcats have exceptional depth in the backcourt. Senior Jordin Mayes, who can play both positions, has played 102 college games, starting 16 times. Sophomore Gabe York will get an audition as the team’s off-the-bench distance shooting specialist.
As a package, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts were often ranked at or near the top of the nation’s recruiting classes. Some view Gordon as the leading freshman ever to arrive at Arizona. Hollis-Jefferson has the size, length and defensive mindset that Miller covets. In a normal recruiting class, Pitts would be a headliner. This year at Arizona he’s No. 3.
Factoid: 96. Arizona has won 96 games in Sean Miller’s four seasons, the most of any Pac-12 team in that period. Miller’s 48–24 Pac-12 record is also the best in the conference.
Arizona is unusually young, expecting to start a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors. Only one senior, Mayes, figures to make the eight- or nine-man rotation.
Nevertheless, Miller and UA fans see this as Arizona’s best chance to get to the Final Four since 2001 — it was agonizingly close in 2003, 2005 and 2011 — because Tarczewski and Gordon are viewed as likely entrees to the NBA Draft in June 2014.
Miller has established himself as a recruiter of impact. This shouldn’t be a now-or-never season for the Wildcats, but anything short of a league title and deep run into the NCAA Tournament would be disappointing.
2013-14 Preseason Top 25
8. Oklahoma State
10. North Carolina
11. Ohio State
14. New Mexico
15. Notre Dame
25. Wichita State