It's hard to not be excited and anxious for the Arizona men's college basketball season. A program as well known and highly regarded as the Arizona basketball program makes it very difficult not to have high expectations. This year's team, featuring just three seniors, has more questions than a lot of Arizona teams have faced in the past. How will freshman phenom Jerryd Bayless handle the point guard duties? How impactful will this year's freshman class be? Will sophomore Chase Budinger take that next step in becoming one of the best college basketball players in the country? How will Jordan Hill handle the duties as a full time starter?
Those questions are just a select few that this basketball team faces going into its first game Tuesday versus the Lumberjacks from Northern Arizona.
The Wildcats will be looking to replace a large amount of production they lost from last year's squad that lost to Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. While the Wildcats return a good amount of talent in Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, and a healthy Jawann McClellan, along with a stellar freshman class, they must find a way to replace 43.6 points per game, 18.3 rebounds per game, and 11.2 assists per game they lost off of last year's team with the departures of seniors Mustafa Shakur, Ivan Radenovic, and sophomore Marcus Williams to the NBA. That's a much more difficult task to accomplish than most people may realize.
In my opinion, this team faces one of the toughest schedules that a Wildcats basketball team has faced in a number of years. Road contests at Kansas, Memphis, UNLV, & Illinois, along with the regular Pac-10 road schedule, and home games against Texas A&M, Virginia, and the usual Pac-10 home schedule make the task of making their 24th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and 21st consecutive 20 win season an extraordinarily difficult task.
However, it's one that I think they'll accomplish. This year's squad is arguably more talented than last year's squad. The Cats bring in one of their most talented recruiting classes in recent memory led by five star recruits Jerryd Bayless and Jamelle Horne. The Cats replace Shakur with Bayless; They will get a full season's worth of production from sophomore Jordan Hill; Jawann McClellan looks to be as healthy as he's been in years, and the likelihood of sophomore Chase Budinger becoming that go-to player is pretty good. This team has more athleticism than last year's squad did with the likes of Jerryd Bayless & Jamelle Horne joining the rotation, and the maturation of Chase Budinger, Jawann McClellan, and Jordan Hill.
With those things, you can add in the growth and maturation of Nic Wise, and guys like Bret Brielmaier, Daniel Dillon, & Laval Lucas-Perry becoming quality role players, and a likely wildcard or two, and this team's overall talent should lead them to the program's 21st straight 20 win season, and 24th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
There is a possibility that some of those things don't take place though; A key injury happens here and there, the team continues to struggle on the defensive end, and the lack of front court depth catches up with them in the difficult Pac-10 conference. The offensive abilities of this team shouldn't be an issue as they begin to get comfortable playing with one another, and continue to gel with what the coaching staff wants them to do, but rather it's the issues mentioned above, and the ability to play as one that may hinder this team's abilities.
This team will need to buy into the newly acquired hardnosed, intense, defensive oriented game that assistant coach/interim head coach Kevin O'Neill has brought to this program. With as difficult as their schedule is on paper going into the season, their ability to get stops on the defensive end will prove more costly than whether they can score on their opponent or not. Offense wasn't an issue with last year's squad as they led the Pac-10 in scoring offense, but the defense was next to dead last in scoring defense. Despite what anyone says, Kevin O'Neill was brought back to this program to change that exact dilemma.
Perhaps the biggest issue this team faces that's not directly related to the defensive side of the spectrum is the fact that they have little to no proven depth at the front court positions. With the exception of Jordan Hill & Bret Brielmaier, who is about as limited offensively as they come, the Cats have no one else that they feel one-hundred percent comfortable going with during real game situations; And with Hill's inability to remain out of foul trouble on a consistent basis, the Wildcats face a huge question mark regarding their front court heading into Tuesday's opener.
Mohamed Tangara showed tremendous ability during the Red & Blue exhibition game, but has seen limited action since in the two exhibition games. Fendi Onobun, a guy who many thought, including Coach O'Neill, would crack the starting lineup, has been sidelined with a shin injury that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. Perhaps the biggest disappointment regarding the front court is the fact that senior Kirk Walters still hasn't fully recovered from mononucleosis that sidelined him all but three minutes during the 2006-07 season, and doesn't look to be anything more than a minutes eater for the upcoming season.
Those scenarios leave the Wildcats with scenario of starting freshman forward Jamelle Horne at the power forward spot, a position Horne will need to adjust to at the college level. Horne's athleticism and high energy play will cause issues for opposing big men, but his lack of physicality and strength will put the Cats front court in a tough predicament. If anything is going to hinder the Cats ability to succeed at a high level this year, ignoring defense, it's the lack of quality depth and talent at the front court positions. Putting all those things into perspective, I expect the Arizona coaching staff to get this team to buy into the team first, defensive oriented mindset that they lacked dearly during the previous couple years, resulting in under achievement. I also think that Jamelle Horne will succeed more than he'll struggle playing significant minutes at the power forward position, along with guys like Tangara, Brielmaier, and Onobun picking up the remainder of the slack.
When all those things come in fruition, I fully expect the Cats to be in contention for the Pac-10 conference title, regardless of whether they win it or not. They face a tough task trying to overcome teams like Oregon, Washington State, Stanford, USC, and conference favorite UCLA, but with the newly acquired mindset of the program, they should end the season closer to accomplishing that than farther away.
However, the one thing that's about as certain as they come heading into this season, is that you'll be watching these Arizona Wildcats playing in the NCAA Tournament for the 24th consecutive season come March. Whether they make it deep into March, well, I'll leave that prediction for the Tim Donaghy's of the basketball world.