Pac-12 Team Preview: Arizona Wildcats

Posted by AMurawa on November 6th, 2013

We continue unveiling our team-by-team breakdowns, in roughly the reverse order of where we expect these teams to finish in the conference standings. 

Arizona Wildcats

Strengths. Arizona has the most pure talent in the Pac-12. The roster is littered with McDonald’s All-Americans and five-star recruits and future pros. And for the first time in Sean Miller’s tenure in Tucson, he’s got a true point guard in Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell. But the one spot where this team really has a chance to be elite is on the defensive end, as McConnell’s defense has been raved about in the weeks of practice leading up to the season. Nick Johnson is already among the best perimeter defenders in the conference, if not the country. Throw in freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as elite athletes who can guard multiple positions, Brandon Ashley who is long and athletic up front, and a big pounder like Kaleb Tarczewski in the middle, and this Wildcat team could be good enough to ride its defense if the offense struggles out of the gate.

T.J. McConnell Is The Type Of Scrappy, Pass-First Point Guard That Has Been Missing At Arizona (Arizona Athletics)

T.J. McConnell Is The Type Of Scrappy, Pass-First Point Guard That Has Been Missing At Arizona (Arizona Athletics)

Weaknesses. The most common complaint when people look for areas to pick this team apart is its questionable outside shooting. It’s a fair enough point, in that guys like Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, in particular, still have jumpers that are most kindly described as “works in progress.” Still, Johnson shot 39.3 percent from three last season, McConnell hit 43.2 percent from deep in 2011-12 at Duquesne, and guys like Gabe York and Jordin Mayes off the pine are quality three-point shooters as well. Having a handful of guys who can stroke the three doesn’t necessarily mean that this team’s ability to shoot the ball isn’t up for debate. For instance, while Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson won’t take many threes, they do have to be able to knock down 12-footers with regularity, lest their opponents pack it in and clog up the lane for the two freshmen plus Tarczewski and Ashley.

Non-Conference Tests. Miller has put together a solid non-conference schedule with several chances at solid resume wins. The highlight of their early season slate is the NIT Season Tip-Off, which could provide an Arizona/Duke match-up in the final round, provided both teams can take care of early round action. And honestly, the Cats should get to the final game: They’ll open with Fairleigh Dickinson, then likely get Rhode Island before possibly facing Rutgers in the semifinals. The other big highlight on the schedule is a mid-December trip to Michigan for a national televised game in Ann Arbor. The other two prime games on the schedule are a mid-week trip to San Diego State during the second week of the season, and a visit from UNLV in early December.

Toughest Conference Stretch. Late in January, the Wildcats will begin a weekend in the Bay Area with two tough tests against Stanford and Cal. They’ll then return home to host Oregon in an ESPN game on a Thursday night followed by Oregon State over the weekend, then back on the road for three straight games: at Arizona State, at Utah, and at Colorado.

If Everything Goes Right…  McConnell excels at getting the ball to guys like Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson, Tarczewski and Ashley in spots where they can score, while he, Johnson and some key pieces off the bench hit enough threes to keep the defense honest. Even in those handful of games where the shots just aren’t falling, the defense is swarming enough to keep the games close. While this team doesn’t really look like one of the handful of best teams in the nation, they win enough games to earn a one or a two seed and then, if things open up, they’re good enough to spring an upset over a superior team in a one-and-done scenario. If things break right, this team could be among the group left standing at the Final Four in Arlington.

Brandon Ashley And Kaleb Tarczewski Help Make The Arizona Frontline An Intimidating One (Chris Petersen, Getty Images)

Brandon Ashley And Kaleb Tarczewski Help Make The Arizona Frontline An Intimidating One (Chris Petersen, Getty Images)

If Nothing Goes Right… Gordon throws down his fair share of spectacular dunks but combines them with an equally fair share of bricks from 15-feet and in. McConnell turns out to be a solid player, but not the type who can carry a team when it hits a rough patch. And despite moments of excellence, the defensive end of the court is marred by stretches of inconsistent effort. The Wildcats lose some games they shouldn’t, spot a team like UCLA or Oregon an early lead in the conference standings, and is never able to completely catch up. Talent alone still gets them through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but on Sweet Sixteen night, the Aaron Gordon-era in Tucson ends prematurely.

Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG T.J. McConnell (Jr, 6’1” 195 lbs, 11.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.8 SPG in 2011-12 at Duquesne)
  • SG Nick Johnson (Jr, 6’3” 200 lbs, 11.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.9 SPG)
  • SF Aaron Gordon (Fr, 6’9” 225 lbs)
  • PF Brandon Ashley (So, 6’8” 230 lbs, 7.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG)
  • C Kaleb Tarczewski  (So, 7’0” 235 lbs, 6.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG)

That’s a scary defensive frontline, with Gordon and Ashley probably capable of switching seamlessly with most guards on pick and rolls. Offensively, there should be balanced scoring, but while Ashley has been rumored to be developing a mid-range jumper, the trio of Gordon, Ashley and Tarczewski all operate most effectively in and around the paint.

Key Reserves

  • F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Fr, 6’7” 215 lbs)
  • SG Gabe York (So, 6’3” 180 lbs, 2.4 PPG, 0.3 RPG in 5.8 MPG)
  • G Jordin Mayes (Sr, 6’3” 190 lbs, 2.8 PPG, 0.8 RPG in 11.8 MPG)
  • PF Zach Peters (RFr, 6’10” 240 lbs)

Hollis-Jefferson probably turns into the de facto sixth starter, earning about as many minutes as Tarczewski and Ashley, but his presence along the front line does little to change the problem of too many Arizona players around the paint. Expect York to pass Mayes on the depth chart and regularly be the first guard off the bench for Miller, although since he is slightly more adept at running the point, the senior will have his place on this team as well. And then there’s Peters, a transfer from Kansas who has suffered through an injury-riddled start to his career. If he can get healthy enough to contribute, he’s a big body who can come in and make shots away from the basket, something that could be an invaluable change of pace for the Wildcats.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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