Arizona: King of the Hill In the Pac-12Posted by AMurawa on October 8th, 2013
Still a month away from actual games and a marathon away from March, there are plenty of questions to be asked and answered about the Pac-12. But one thing is beyond debate: Arizona is not only the clear-cut favorite in the conference this year, but they are the strongest program in the conference these days. Maybe by a long shot. Since Lute Olson turned Arizona into a national power with four Final Four appearances and one national title between 1988 and 2001, the conventional wisdom has been that the power in the conference was fairly evenly divided between Tucson and Westwood, what with UCLA’s 11 banners and all. But while three consecutive Final Four appearances are not that far in the rear view mirror for the Bruins, for the time being at least, Arizona is the power conference beacon out west.
Looking up and down the roster, it is easy to see why, as this year’s vintage of the Wildcats will feature three McDonald’s All-Americans (Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley) and and no fewer than four guys (Gordon, Ashley, Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski) projected by DraftExpress as selections in either this year’s or next year’s NBA Draft. Throw in a polished point guard in T.J. McConnell, newly eligible after a transfer season, and a talented supporting cast, and not only is Arizona picked to win the Pac-12 this year (unanimously here, according to CBS’ cast of characters), but they’re on the short list of teams with a chance to cut down the nets in early April.
But what makes Arizona the program even more impressive is the fact that the roll they are on shows no sign of stopping. You almost forget that just four short years ago, the Wildcats were floundering around in the wake of the rocky end of Olson’s career. The program bounced around through interim coaches and a failed coach-in-waiting in Kevin O’Neill before a long coaching search finally landed Sean Miller. Then Miller experienced some fortunate luck when Tim Floyd, who had earlier that summer turned down the open Arizona job to remain at USC, left the Trojans abruptly, causing recruits Derrick Williams and Momo Jones to reopen their recruitments, only to eventually land in the waiting and welcoming arms of Miller in Tucson. That auspicious turn of events gave Miller a much-needed infusion of talent which turned into the Williams-led Elite Eight run in 2011. If not for the fortuitous Floyd decision, it is rather easy to write up an alternate history where Miller is run out of town on a rail after three straight seasons missing the NCAA Tournament.
But back in reality, Miller has built up a recruiting behemoth in the desert. In 2011, the Wildcats had a consensus top-10 class, even if Josiah Turner, Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol all turned out to be busts of one form or another (honestly, I have a hard time piling Chol in with those other two). In 2012, Miller’s class was the consensus #3 group in the nation, behind only Ben Howland’s last-gasp UCLA recruiting class and John Calipari’s juggernaut at Kentucky. This year the Cats again pulled in a top-five class, highlighted by the high-flying Gordon. And while the Wildcats don’t yet have a five-star 2014 signee (although never fear, they’re certainly on the trail of more than a couple), they’ve already got a pair of four-star 2014 kids – Craig Victor and Parker Jackson-Cartwright – lined up.
A couple of offseasons back, there was a brief time where it appeared that Miller would be headed to the open Maryland job. After a couple nervous days for Wildcat fans, he opted to remain in Tucson. Barring Miller biting on one of the next few high profile jobs that come open (and believe me, when good jobs come open, Miller’s agent will get a call), he has built upon the solid foundation that Olson built. With great community support for the only game in town, great facilities, and a sterling history and reputation, it is going to take a lot for any Pac-12 program to knock the Wildcats off their perch. UCLA is the most obvious contender to the throne, but their coaching transition did not go well and new head coach Steve Alford will need to build momentum. Oregon has made a push in the Dana Altman era (more on that later today), behind new facilities, new athletic department support and new buzz, and Colorado is suddenly thriving under Tad Boyle, but neither program has the history or pressures of UCLA or Arizona. So, for the time being, this is Arizona’s conference and everybody else is left to take a swing at the big guy.