2011-12 RTC Class Schedule: Arizona Wildcats

Posted by zhayes9 on September 19th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

In April of 2009, Sean Miller accepted the head coaching position at the University of Arizona. During the 29 months since that hiring, one can make a realistic argument that Sean Miller has done the best job of any coach in America.

Miller took over a team that finished a lackluster 17-19 in Pac-10 play in the previous two years under Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell, had their expected roster gutted following the coaching switch and was mired in a program malaise that hadn’t lingered around the McKale Center since Lute Olson first took the job in the mid-1980s. In just two years time, Miller’s launched Arizona into unexpected heights so soon and so dramatically: a full-on pasting of Duke in last year’s Sweet 16, the grooming of the #2 overall pick in the NBA Draft and an incredible haul of blue chip prospects headed to Tucson to keep the fire burning into the future.

The program has reached a point where, despite the losses of their superstar forward Derrick Williams and point guard Lamont Jones, Arizona is favored to claim the Pac-12 crown in 2011-12 over the likes of UCLA, California and Washington. That speaks to the depth that Miller has assembled at Arizona not too long after the losses of Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill left the program facing a rebuilding project too steep for the likes of John Calipari, Jamie Dixon, Mark Few and even Tim Floyd to take on.

With apologies to Brad Stevens, there’s not a coach I’d rather have leading my program into the next decade than Miller.

Sean Miller has revived a stagnant Arizona program

Team Outlook: Although the loss of Williams is mammoth, a player so efficient last season he nearly caused Ken Pomeroy’s head to explode, there’s a nice blend of veterans and talented freshman to expect only a minimal drop in offensive production. Junior Solomon Hill provided a preview to the Arizona faithful of his potential during a 16/8 on 7-12 FG performance against Texas in last year’s second round and has the versatility to play either forward spot at 6’6. Kyle Fogg should be shooting 2,000 jumpers per day over the offseason after shooting 37% from the field as a junior, especially because he could be their most frequent gunner in 2011-12. Kevin Parrom finished in the top-50 in offensive rating among role players as a sophomore and is one of the most underrated swingmen in the nation. Jordin Mayes finished second in the conference in three-point shooting at 45% as a freshman and really came on strong in March. Freshman Josiah Turner could start at the point from day one after Jones’ transferred to Iona over the offseason. Whether this team can blend on the floor with a rookie floor general and sans Williams are legitimate concerns.

Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 7. Arizona has a chance to play three top-25 opponents during the first half slate, a total that won’t bog down the non-conference SOS, but also isn’t overly daunting for a team that must develop on-court chemistry early in the campaign. Despite the adverse atmosphere, the Wildcats should skate by a young St. John’s team at the Garden before meeting either Texas A&M or Mississippi State in the final, two dangerous squads. Miller will truly have a chance to assess how his team stacks up against elite competition after a trip to Gainesville to battle backcourt-heavy Florida. Arizona also faces Gonzaga in the always entertaining Battle of Seattle. The Wildcats should be able to handle rebuilding San Diego State as well as a possible bubble team in Clemson. The season starts earlier than most squads with a November 7 home opener against Valparaiso.

Cupcake City: Other than Bryant, Ball State and Northern Arizona, Miller avoided overloading the frosting in November and December. Two early games will rudely welcome Turner to the world of playing point guard at the Division I level if he’s granted the starting nod: Duquesne’s rabid full-court pressure that boosted the Dukes to an 11-game winning streak at one point last season, and Oakland, where Turner would match up with all-Summit performer Reggie Hamilton (17.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, although he can’t hand the rock to one Keith Benson anymore). San Diego State will have to press the reset button after last season’s magical ride, but no team with Chase Tapley, James Rahon and Utah transfer J.J. O’Brien can be considered a cupcake.

Toughest Early Season Test: Credit Miller and Florida coach Billy Donovan for scheduling an Arizona-Florida home-and-home that should be tremendously competitive. The first meeting takes place December 7 and will be a substantial challenge for the talented rotation of Arizona guards. Florida has a top-5 backcourt in the country with returning starters Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, a transfer that averaged over 16 PPG in two seasons in the Big East in Mike Rosario and possibly the best prep shooting guard in the country in Bradley Beal. Florida has a legitimate chance to be special if their frontcourt, notably Patric Young and Erik Murphy, can take a step forward and provide enough of a threat to prevent defenses from stacking the perimeter.

Hardest Pac-12 Stretch: The Pac-12 looks relatively weak once again and Arizona’s toughest road tests – at UCLA, at Cal and at Washington – are spread throughout three different two-game road trips. The Bay Area swing may be the most challenging. California returns nearly all of last year’s weapons, including the phenomenal Allen Crabbe/Jorge Gutierrez combo. Although losing Jeremy Green stings, Johnny Dawkins has a young team in Palo Alto led by Josh Owens and Anthony Brown primed to give the conference favorites fits.

Easiest Pac-12 Stretch: After traveling to UCLA, Arizona should be able to run off five consecutive wins in a row. Three of those contests are on the road, all against rebuilding teams. It begins with a visit to USC, a squad that will heavily depend on a junior college lottery ticket after losing Jio Fontan to a devastating ACL tear. Taking care of the two Oregon schools at the McKale Center shouldn’t be too difficult. Although the additions of Colorado and Utah may prove beneficial basketball-wise down the road, they won’t be competitive next season. Arizona gets both of those teams on the road to conclude the stretch.

Best Individual Matchup: Washington will be loaded with wings this season and none may have a better year than sophomore Terrence Ross.  He started his freshman campaign slowly, but caught on during the second half of the season and into the Pac-10 tournament. He should be a double-digit scoring presence from November to March this time around, providing a challenge for Solomon Hill. Production at the wings shouldn’t be a problem for Miller or Lorenzo Romar with Hill, Parrom and Jesse Perry matching up against Ross, Scott Suggs and C.J. Wilcox.

Most Challenging Road Test: The program had its most momentum since the Kevin Love days after nearly knocking off Florida in last year’s second round and UCLA could have easily been a preseason top ten team had Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee returned to Westwood. Regardless, Howland is optimistic heading into 2011-12 and has some intriguing pieces, notably the rugged Reeves Nelson and his frontcourt sidekick Josh Smith. If the portly Smith can get into decent shape and give Howland 28-30 minutes per night, he’s a Pac-12 POY candidate. The Wear twins also become eligible, providing a big test for the Arizona frontcourt.

Upset City: Because of the additions of Colorado and Utah, every Pac-12 team skips one road swing this season. For Arizona, it’s at Oregon and Oregon State, rendering my upset special in Eugene impossible. I’ll have to settle for another trap game in Pullman against Washington State, especially if the Wildcats cruise against Colorado and Utah in the two games prior and are looking ahead to Washington. State lost Klay Thompson early to the Draft, but Faisal Aden can certainly light up the scoreboard.

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