2013-14 RTC Class Schedule: Arizona WildcatsPosted by BHayes on September 26th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @HoopsTraveler. Periodically throughout the preseason, RTC will take an in-depth look at the schedules of some of the more prominent teams in college basketball.
Sean Miller’s fifth season in Tuscon could easily turn out to be his best. Despite the graduation of key seniors Solomon Hill (a first round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft), Mark Lyons, and Kevin Parrom – in addition to the surprising departure of freshman Grant Jerrett to the professional ranks, Miller has assembled the most talented roster that Arizona has seen in quite some time. A solid Pac-12 conference and challenging non-conference schedule will challenge the Cats’, but a nice blend of returnees and newcomers should give the man at the helm ample leeway to steer this storied program deep into March.
- Team Outlook: This will be a new-look Arizona team, as last year’s squad was built around departed seniors Lyons and Hill. Some familiar faces will be back and poised to fill leadership roles this time around, with junior Nick Johnson (11.5 PPG, 3.2 APG, 1.9 SPG) most prominent among them. The athletic two-guard shot the ball better from three-point range as a sophomore (39% after 32% as a freshman), and should also serve as the Cats’ best perimeter defender in 2013-14. Sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski (6.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 22.2 MPG) and Brandon Ashley (7.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 20.5 MPG) return to anchor the frontcourt, with each likely seeing a slight minutes increase, despite the arrival of a duo of freshman studs in the same frontcourt. Both Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were McDonald’s All-Americans last spring, and immense immediate contributions from both freshmen would surprise no one. Gordon especially shapes up as a good candidate for a jump to the NBA after a season of stardom in Tuscon, as he is currently projected as a Top-20 pick in the 2014 draft on NBADraft.net. Gordon’s production will be one of the keys to this Wildcat season, but he may not be Sean Miller’s most important player. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell (11.4 PPG, 5.5 APG, 2.8 SPG in 2011-12) will be filling Lyons’ shoes and running the show in Tucson this season. McConnell was an efficient lead guard in the Atlantic-10 and should quickly acclimate to the Pac-12, but the absence of proven ball-handlers elsewhere on the roster means his transition has to be a smooth one for Arizona to be successful. He will be a welcomed change-of-pace for teammates used to the shoot-first Lyons dominating the ball, and his steal % of 4.7 (12th best in the nation in 2012) is ample indication of a dedication to both ends. The talented youngsters around him will keep expectations low for McConnell individually, but don’t be shocked if he emerges as the leader of this club.
- Non-Conference Schedule Rank (out of 10): 8.5. Sean Miller has put together a challenging pre-conference schedule for his team. A potential headliner for the slate looms if the Cats’ can reach the final of the NIT Season Tip-Off, as Duke is a likely bet to be ready and waiting at that stage. The Wildcats kick off the event at home against Fairleigh Dickinson and then likely Rhode Island, where a pair of victories would earn them a semifinal bid at Madison Square Garden. Rutgers should be the last obstacle before that potential duel with the Blue Devils, but even if the Cats’ stumble along the way to that seemingly inescapable finals clash, the rest of the schedule still includes a handful of elite opponents to deal with before 2014. Prime among them is Michigan, as Arizona will travel to the Crisler Center on December 14 for a harrowing non-conference road test. A visit to San Diego to take on San Diego State may also qualify as an elite road test, depending on how easily Steve Fisher can replace Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley. The final marquee opponent on the schedule is UNLV, but that game will take place in the friendly confines of the McKale Center on December 7. Other home dates that will demand the Wildcats’ full attention are games against Long Beach State (November 11) and New Mexico State (December 11) – two of the better mid-major programs on the West Coast in recent years.
- Cupcake City: The Wildcats have fewer true cupcakes than most power conference programs, but there are still some soft spots on the schedule. Fluffiest among them will be Arizona’s final two games in 2013, as the combination of Southern and Northern Arizona should make for a smooth transition into the New Year for the Wildcats. You also can punch Arizona’s ticket into the quarterfinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off, as first round opponent Fairleigh Dickinson was one of the worst teams in Divison 1 a season ago. If there’s anything beyond these three games that stands as a guaranteed win for Arizona it would be the December 3 match-up with Texas Tech, but we will give the Red Raiders the benefit of the doubt with Tubby Smith now on their sideline.
- Toughest Early Season Test: Especially given that the Duke game may not even come to fruition, let’s take the surer option and say that the Wildcats’ trip to Ann Arbor will prove to be their stiffest challenge of the early season. It’s one of the more unusual and intriguing match-ups of the national non-conference season, and should offer the older backcourt of the Cats’ a chance to prove its worth. Both the Wildcats and Wolverines have front lines loaded with elite talent, so look to the backcourt of McConnell and Johnson to attack an uncertain Wolverine backcourt rotation. How that battle plays out will go a long ways towards determining the outcome in Ann Arbor, where an Arizona win would help set an early high trajectory for Miller’s bunch.
- Hardest Pac-12 Stretch: The back half of February looms as the Wildcats’ toughest stretch of the Pac-12 season. Between February 14 and March 2 the Wildcats will play two of the tougher road games in this year’s Pac-12, with dates at possible title challengers Colorado and Arizona State. Also included in the stretch are home games versus Stanford and Cal – hopeful Tournament teams and potentially the most dangerous pair of travel partners Arizona will see on their schedule the entire year. If Arizona is to deliver on all the preseason hype and seize the Pac-12 title, expect the loudest affirmation of that promise to occur during this trying February stretch.
- Easiest Pac-12 Stretch: Washington and Washington State are overwhelming preseason favorites to be the softest pair of traveling partners for Pac-12 hosts this year, and Arizona kicks off Pac-12 play with visits from the Evergreen State schools. A road trip to Los Angeles follows the next weekend, and while the January 9 date at Pauley Pavilion will not be easy, the subsequent trip to take on USC means the Wildcats will play three of their first four Pac-12 games against presumptive conference cellar-dwellers.
- Best Individual Match-up: Andre Roberson’s early entry into the NBA draft robbed Pac-12 fans of a Gordon-Roberson match-up that could have prompted belief in human cloning, but there will still be plenty of intriguing match-ups for the Arizona freshman. Mike Moser is not brand new to the Pac-12 – he spent a year at UCLA as a freshman – but the UNLV transfer’s maiden voyage in Eugene sets Oregon up to make a run in the league. The senior also doubles as a fun match-up for Gordon. Despite a massive athleticism advantage, Gordon will have his hands full with the the crafty Moser, who is as capable of stepping out and knocking down the three as he is getting after it on both backboards. If we peer out to the perimeter, the individual match-up between Damyean Dotson and Nick Johnson will also be one to watch, and look even beyond them and you will find an X’s and O’s battle between two of the best coaches in the conference. Arizona and Oregon seem as upward trending as any two Pac-12 programs these days, so that alone should make their two match-ups – in Tuscon on February 6 and Eugene on March 8 – ones to watch.
- Most Challenging Road Test: We have discussed the challenge that the December trip to Ann Arbor presents, so let’s look to the Pac-12 for another road trip that Arizona should be overjoyed to wrap up with a win. Colorado stands to be the Cats’ stiffest challenger to the Pac-12 throne, and Tad Boyle has actually begun to drum up a little excitement around the basketball program in Boulder, so expect the Wildcats to be underdogs when they visit Colorado on February 22. Andre Roberson may be gone, but nearly everyone else of consequence returns for the Buffs, with Spencer Dinwiddie entering the season as one of the front-runners for Pac-12 player of the year. This Colorado team will not lose too many games in Boulder – a Wildcat win here would qualify as a statement to the rest of the league.
- Upset City: Arizona should be a firm favorite when they visit the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on February 19, but don’t be shocked if Utah proves a little less hospitable than expected. The Cats’ will be coming off a trip to Tempe to play the rival Sun Devils and looking forward to a weekend game in Boulder against that good Colorado team, so this mid-week matchup could get lost in the shuffle. Larry Krystowiak’s Utes’ exceeded expectations a season ago, and a repeat performance of that phenomenon could make Salt Lake City a tougher-than-expected pit stop for the Pac-12’s elite.