Pac-12 Post-Mortems: Arizona

Posted by AMurawa on April 25th, 2014

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll go through each Pac-12 team one by one and recount the season that has just completed and begin to turn the page to what we might see next season. Today, Arizona.

What Went Right

With freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson stepping into roles as big-time contributors right away, with Nick Johnson taking his game to a higher – and more consistent – level, with sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Gabe York making huge strides in their second seasons, and with T.J. McConnell tying everything together as the team’s consummate floor general, this vintage of the Wildcats came together about as well as Sean Miller could have hoped. Sure, there was plenty of talent on this team. But what made this group a great unit is their ability to function together seamlessly. Defensively, they always had one another’s backs, combining to form the year’s most fearsome defensive squad. And on the offensive end, everybody bought into their roles and found ways to complement each other. Indeed, this 2013-14 group of Wildcats exemplified the word “team” as well as any college basketball squad in the country.

The 2013-14 Wildcats Exemplified The Word Team (Christian Petersen, Getty Images)

The 2013-14 Wildcats Exemplified The Word Team (Christian Petersen, Getty Images)

What Went Wrong

A whole lot went right in Tucson this season, but if we wanted to pinpoint one thing that went wrong, we’d jump straight to February 1st in Haas Pavilion, where in the opening minutes of a clash with California, Ashley landed awkwardly following a shot and wound up with a broken foot that ended his season. While Miller was able to rejigger his lineup on the fly and keep the Wildcats among the best teams in the nation, there will forever be questions about what could have been without that simple twist of fate in Berkeley.

MVP

Nick Johnson was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and he had a mighty fine season, averaging 16.2 points, 4.1 boards and 2.8 assists while being one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. But Aaron Gordon was this team’s most important player, especially after the Ashley injury. Gordon’s ridiculous combination of skills – he was a strong rebounder, a tremendous finisher around the rim, an underrated ballhandler and offensive creator and undoubtedly one of the best all-around defenders in the nation – helped allow the Wildcats to match up with anything any opponent could have thrown at them. While Johnson was the team’s leader, Gordon was the guy who helped flip the switch from very good to great.

Aaron Gordon's Versatility Made Him One Of The Nation's Most Important Players (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

Aaron Gordon’s Versatility Made Him One Of The Nation’s Most Important Players (Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star)

Players Leaving

Only one senior – little-used Jordin Mayes – graduates, but the ‘Cats will lose two other big-time players early to the NBA Draft, as Gordon and Johnson have decided to move on. Gordon is expected to be a lottery pick, while Johnson could sneak into the end of the first round, but is likely to wind up as a second-round pick.

Players Coming In

While Miller loses a couple players early, it is no matter; his recruiting is at such a high level right now that the Wildcats just reload. Stanley Johnson – rated by ESPN as the seventh-best player in the 2014 class – is the center-piece, a strong and athletic wing who will have a good chance at sliding right into a spot in Miller’s starting five. Combo forward Craig Victor is a skilled player most comfortable around the rim, but with enough upside to add more of a perimeter game. Mighty-mite point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright will likely slide right into the back up spot behind McConnell and will have a chance to prove himself as the point of the future, while seven-foot Serbian Dusan Ristic is an intriguing prospect who Jonathan Givony rated among the best prospects in Europe in his class. Rounding out the class is JuCo transfer Kadeem Allen, the 2014 JuCo player of the year, a guy who could potentially step right into Johnson’s shoes as the team’s shooting guard and leading perimeter scorer. In other words, yet another loaded class heading to Tucson.

Reason for Hope

Seriously, if you’re a Wildcat fan and you’re not filled with hope about both the immediate and long-term future of this program, you’re a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist. Miller’s got the recruiting machine humming, bringing in blue-chip after blue-chip, complementing them nicely with under-the-radar talents to fill specific needs. He’s built a program that is so desirable to recruits that he is able to pick and choose based on how players will fit into his squad and he’s shown a facility for getting the most out of his players over the course of their careers. Yeah, there have been some disappointments with Elite Eight near-misses, but this is a program that is headed for multiple Final Fours; it’s only a matter of time.

Reason For Concern

There aren’t a ton of reasons for concern at this point, but the 2014-15 roster will be filled with players looking to show off for NBA scouts in advance of the 2015 draft. Guys like Ashley, Hollis-Jefferson, Tarczewski and Johnson will all be highly rated guys confident in their own abilities, so once again it will be imperative that Miller instills a team atmosphere from day one. Perhaps the only thing that can derail the 2014-15 Wildcats as significant Pac-12 favorites would be internal strife.

Overall Grade

A. They came up short of their goal, losing a heartbreaking West Regional final to Wisconsin, but that outcome does little to take away from what was a wildly entertaining and successful season in Tucson. In a single elimination tournament, things happen and the best team doesn’t always win. While it isn’t clear that the Wildcats were the best team in the nation, they were certainly on the short list of teams that could legitimately be mentioned in that conversation.

AMurawa (825 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.


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