Sean Miller restored Arizona to prominence with unexpected swiftness, requiring two seasons to turn the Wildcats into Pac-10 champions and 30-game winners. Yet the offseason was marked with uncertainty. Miller briefly pursued the coaching vacancy at Maryland; Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams left school, opting for the NBA Draft; and starting point guard Lamont “Momo” Jones transferred to Iona.
But Miller has recruited so well since moving to Tucson in the spring of 2009 that the Wildcats are unlikely to miss Jones, and they have enough depth and incoming talent to contend for the first Pac-12 title even without Williams. “We’re going to continue to win,” says junior forward Solomon Hill. “This is just the start of another long run at Arizona.”
After flirting with Maryland, Miller accepted a contract extension through 2015-16 and, in a burst of damage control, assured Arizona fans that he would remain in Tucson “unconditionally” and “for the long haul.”
This was met with great relief in Tucson, which remains edgy following a bumpy coaching transition from Lute Olson to Kevin O’Neill to Russ Pennell and finally to Miller.
“We’re not yet where we’re going to get,” says Miller. “We’re going to have more talented teams, and more experienced teams, than the one that reached the Elite Eight.”
Arizona was a failed 3-point attempt from beating eventual national champion UConn and advancing to the Final Four. Its roster is stocked at levels typical of Olson’s glory days.
Miller is not taking his foot from the accelerator. He donated $250,000 of a $3 million project to help the school add a basketball-only strength and conditioning center in its relatively new practice arena adjacent to McKale Center. By doing so, he insisted that all of his players spend the summer in Tucson to work out together. “It’s easier to work in the summer knowing what the prize is,” he says. “Once you’ve had a taste of success, as we did, you’d be surprised how eager and hungry all of our guys are to get back to that level.”
Key Wildcats Stat: 34
Since 1988, Arizona has had 34 players selected in the NBA Draft, the most in the nation in that period. Fifteen of those have been first-round choices.
Seven players will compete for three spots, including the one vacated by Williams. Juniors Kevin Parrom and Hill are interchangeable and versatile, playing on the wing and inside. Both have averaged at least 20 minutes per game in each of the past two season and seem ready to become all-conference-type players.
They will be in a mix with senior Jesse Perry, whose first season in the Pac-10 was a success. In about 20 minutes per game, Perry averaged 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds and was a useful defensive player.
The most intriguing inside player is 6'11" junior Kyryl Natyazhko, who has now played 69 college games and will be given a chance for an expanded role as a defensive player, screen-setter and rebounder. He has a surprisingly good shooting touch from 12 to 18 feet.
Freshmen Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol are expected to challenge for immediate playing time, pushing Parrom, Hill, Perry and Natyazhko.
With Jones gone, Arizona loses an aggressive, vocal player who often got by as much on bravado as he did talent. It seemed to work with such a young team. But now that sophomore combo guard Jordin Mayes appears ready to take on an expanded role, challenging senior Kyle Fogg for minutes, Jones became expendable. Mayes is a skilled 3-point shooter and ball-handler. Fogg is the club’s defensive stopper and a reliable scorer who has 85 career starts. Senior Brendon Lavender, a role player, is the team’s top 3-point shooter, according to Miller
Arizona’s two marquee newcomers are point guard Josiah Turner and shooting guard Nick Johnson, a pair of top-30 national recruits who could play their way into the starting lineup.
Miller’s third Arizona team has a roster that goes 11 deep and doesn’t appear to have many holes. The most telling challenge will be how long it takes the four freshmen to become capable Pac-12 performers. But even if the process takes a bit longer than expected, Miller can lean on seven returning players with considerable NCAA Tournament experience.
Don’t look for the star-power from one player the way Williams led the team last year. This time, if Arizona has a star or two, it is likely to be a freshman guard.
Pac-12 Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out