Since his inaugural season in 2009, head coach Sean Miller has quickly turned the Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team into a national contender.
His excellent coaching and high-end recruiting has brought Tucson’s favorite team back to prominence.
The Wildcats fell short of last year’s goal of winning a national championship when it lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.
Granted, their departures left two big holes in Miller’s team, but his recruitment of Stanley Johnson, Craig Victor, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen provided the needed potential to re-tool.
Gordon and Johnson’s draft plans were quick, but in the blink of an eye, the Wildcats were primed and ready to make another deep run in the tournament and possibly win a national championship.
On paper, this team looks formidable, but there are still some pressing questions that need answers.
1. Can this year’s team defend at the same level?
The 2013-2014 team was one of the best defensive teams in the nation. It gave up 58.6 points per game, placing it as the 6th best defense. Miller was able to put multiple capable defenders on the floor, and versatility played a large part in their defensive success.
Senior point guard T.J. McConnell usually took the assignment of defending the opposing teams point guards, and he did an excellent job throughout the season, finishing with a solid defensive rating of 90.8. Aside from McConnell’s defensive prowess, the ‘Cats had a plethora of smart and savvy defenders.
This season, Miller’s team is reloaded with more defenders and they run deep into the bench. McConnell, Hollis-Jefferson, Ashley and Tarczewski are all returning and freshman guard/forward Stanley Johnson will more than likely have a featured role on this team.
All of the names listed have proved that they can be above average defenders. Coming off the bench, Miller will be able to use freshman center Dusan Ristic and Findlay Prep forward Craig Victor and early reports for both are positive.
Miller makes sure that his team's success revolves around its defense and he has plenty of tools at his disposal to make sure this team is successful.
2. Is there a player that can shoot a respectable percentage from deep?
The issue is not if Arizona can put the ball in the hoop. In traditional basketball, the adage “good defense turns into offense” really represents this team well.
Their defensive heat will turn many teams over and the result will be easy buckets, but aside from that, can anyone shoot a reliable three-pointer?
McConnell averaged 2.6 three-point attempts per game last season and made nearly one. 36% from deep is not too bad, but if you look at his style of play, he is not necessarily the type of player to create for himself when nothing else is working.
With Stanley Johnson probably spending some time at the two and three spots, he’ll be asked to shoot some from beyond the arc, but his range is not his best asset.
If you look down the roster, it should be noted that Hollis-Jefferson would not be asked to shoot from distance and Brandon Ashley has a similar issue to McConnell’s.
Pitts had a limited role in his first year, but after Ashley lost his season to a foot injury, he was in the games more than most expected and he knocked down some threes for Miller.
York had a bigger role than Pitts did, and he was hitting his threes at a 38% clip. If either York or Pitts can step into the role of a sharpshooter then Arizona could become more lethal.
3. Will Stanley Johnson fill the void left by Aaron Gordon?
The young freshman already has heavy expectations on his shoulders, and the annual Red-Blue game has not even happened yet. Heck, Arizona’s media day has not approached us, either.
Aaron Gordon’s presence in Miller’s offensive and defensive schemes was bigger than some will realize. He defended multiple positions and was entertaining on the fastbreaks. With all of this style, Gordon was missing a defined skillset.
Johnson has a defined skillset/position, and several NBA scouts have said that they feel Johnson is already a superior two-way player than Gordon.
If Johnson comes in ready to work and carry a heavy load, there is no reason to believe he cannot fill the void left by Gordon.
Johnson is the real deal and watching him grow up over the years has truly been amazing. If everything goes as expected with his development and ability to mesh well with his teammates, there is no reason why Arizona does not win the conference title.