For one of the few times in 30 years, Arizona won’t play one of the nation’s most difficult non-conference schedules, choosing to play home games against Sacred Heart, Northern Colorado, Grand Canyon, Texas Southern, Cal-Bakersfield, New Mexico and UC Irvine. Sean Miller says the unusually light schedule will allow the Wildcats to audition three elite true freshmen and redshirt freshman forward Ray Smith, all of whom are likely to start.
“I’m not moaning and we’re not rebuilding,” says Miller. “I like what we’ve got. But we’ll use November and December to get everyone in the right place.”
Arizona lost 61 percent of its scoring from a senior-laden club that was something of a disappointment. The Wildcats went from 34–4 in 2014-15 to 25–9 in ’15-16, dropped to third in the Pac-12 and weren’t competitive in an NCAA Tournament loss to Wichita State.
None of Arizona’s seniors was selected in the NBA Draft, not even four-year starting center Kaleb Tarczewski, an indication that Arizona’s talent level had ebbed.
This season, the only senior with a chance to start is combo guard Kadeem Allen, but he’s more apt to play 15 to 20 minutes as a backup as Miller reconfigures his lineup following the departures of Tarczewski, Gabe York, Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen.
The only pre-conference games of note are away from Tucson: The Wildcats play Michigan State in Hawaii, Gonzaga in Los Angeles and either Butler or Vanderbilt in a Las Vegas tournament. “Overall, our strength of schedule will be good,” says Miller. “We’re just going about it in a different way this year.”
All Pac-12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Sean Miller
2015-16 RECORD (PAC-12): 25–9 (12–6)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Wichita State 65–55 in the first round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Second in the Pac-12
F Ryan Anderson (15.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg)
C Kaleb Tarczewski (9.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg)
F Mark Tollefsen (7.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
G Gabe York (15.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Arizona is likely to use a smaller and more athletic lineup and eschew a traditional center, but the club is so deep that Miller can use 7-foot junior Dusan Ristic and 6'11" sophomore Chance Comanche at center depending on the situation. Ristic is a capable shooter with defensive weaknesses; Miller says that Comanche, who averaged only 1.9 points as a freshman, has an NBA future.
Smith tore the ACL in both of his knees the last two offseasons, but he is possibly Arizona’s most talented player. He’s versatile and a shooter with range; he’ll be used on the wing and at power forward. At 6'8", he’ll have a size advantage on most wing opponents.
Another expected starter is freshman Lauri Markkanen, a 6'11", stretch-4 from Finland and a potential NBA first-round draft pick. Markkanen isn’t considered a center.
New York City freshman Rawle Alkins, an attack-the-rim player, will get a chance to start at small forward, sometimes sharing time with sophomore Allonzo Trier, the club’s top returning scorer (14.8 ppg). Trier is expected to slide from shooting guard to small forward depending on personnel matchups.
Point guard is the club’s most uncertain spot. Junior Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a useful 3-point shooter and good passer/playmaker, but he’s probably closer to 5'8" than his listed 5'11", and he is often overmatched on defense.
Freshman Kobi Simmons, who can play either guard spot, will have a chance to win the point guard job. He is among the highest-ranked recruits Miller has signed. However the point guard battle goes, Allen will have a presence, and Arizona will have quality depth. Allen played 842 minutes last season, starting at both guard spots, and is the club’s top defender.
Trier could emerge as a team leader, whether he starts at shooting guard or small forward. He is an aggressive, attack-the-basket player who ranked among the Pac-12’s leaders in free throw attempts last year. If Trier improves his 3-point shooting — he made 40 3-pointers on 36.4 percent shooting — he’ll be one of the league’s most difficult defensive matchups.
Most recruiting services ranked 6'11" Lauri Markkanen, 6'6" Kobi Simmons and 6'4" Rawle Alkins in the Class of 2016’s top 20. Arizona also signed 6'8" junior college shot-blocking standout Keanu Pinder, an Australian, and added fifth-year senior transfer Talbott Denny from Lipscomb. Denny, a 6'7" power forward and rebounding specialist, played high school basketball in Tucson. One of Arizona’s top signees, shooting guard Terrance Ferguson, chose to play professionally in Australia rather than enroll in school.
Arizona won 33 and 34 games, respectively, and reached the Elite Eight in 2014 and 2015. Getting to that point or beyond will depend on the development of a reliable point guard. The Wildcats won’t often deploy a conventional, by-the-numbers lineup, and the roster’s versatility and athleticism are intriguing. One unknown is whether Arizona has a shooter who can come close to matching York’s 98 3-pointers from a year ago.
Arizona seems to have all the parts for a deep run in March. Whether it has the necessary team chemistry and leadership is the big unknown.