Pac-12 Season Preview: Arizona Wildcats

Posted by Tracy McDannald on October 14th, 2014

The Pac-12 microsite will preview each of its league teams over the next few weeks, starting today with Arizona. 

Arizona Wildcats

Strengths: For a team that lost the Pac-12’s Player of the Year (Nick Johnson) and top freshman (Aaron Gordon), head coach Sean Miller sure has a lot of depth around him. The reigning regular season champions will return three of its five starters from last season — including junior forward Brandon Ashley, who missed the final 16 games of the year with a foot injury. The Wildcats potentially have the ability to go two-deep at each position thanks to another top-five recruiting class, headlined by freshman forward Stanley Johnson. A defensive-minded team, Arizona is equipped with loads of size and versatility once again.

Sean Miller, Arizona

Head coach Sean Miller has reloaded the defending Pac-12 Conference regular-season champion Arizona Wildcats. reloaded (AP Photo)

Weaknesses: Expect last year’s questions regarding the team’s outside shooting to be at the forefront again. Nobody on the Wildcats cracked the 40 percent mark from the three-point line last season, and like the previous year, the top two shooters — Elliott Pitts (39.3 percent) and Gabe York (38.5 percent) — are competing for similar minutes off the bench at the same position. But this is where Ashley’s return may help keep defenses honest, as he connected on 11 of 29 long-range attempts with a more refined jump shot as a sophomore. The next-closest criticism of this team may be at the free throw line, where no returnee shot better than 75 percent and most of the roster failed to crack the 70s.

Non-conference tests: The true road slate will not be quite as daunting as last year’s trips to Michigan and San Diego State, but both schools could end up on Arizona’s schedule again. The Wildcats will host the Wolverines in December while the Aztecs are in the same EA Sports Maui Invitational field during Thanksgiving week. A potential meeting with SDSU would be an NCAA Tournament rematch, as will an early December home contest against Gonzaga. In all, Arizona could meet seven NCAA Tournament qualifiers from a season ago before reaching the Pac-12 schedule.

Toughest conference stretch: The final four games of the regular season could be worth keeping an eye on, as Arizona will head on the road at the end of February to play Colorado and Utah before closing out at home against California and Stanford.

If everything goes right… Arizona will be looking at a repeat as the regular season conference champion. Stanley Johnson will fill the void left behind by Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will elevate his game on the offensive end. The depth of the Wildcats will carry Miller to that elusive Final Four appearance and possibly more.

If nothing goes right… Arizona will have a tough time replacing Nick Johnson’s all-around production, and another season of lofty expectations becomes too much as another Elite Eight disaster awaits. The lack of pure outside shooting on this squad exposes Arizona to the point of an inevitable March Madness flop.

Projected starting lineup:

  • PG T.J. McConnell (Sr, 6’1”, 195 lbs., 8.4 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.7 SPG)
  • SG Stanley Johnson (Fr, 6’6”, 225 lbs.)
  • SF Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (So, 6’7”, 215 lbs., 9.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 BPG)
  • PF Brandon Ashley (Jr, 6’8”, 230 lbs., 11.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.0 APG)
  • C Kaleb Tarczewski (Jr, 7’0”, 235 lbs., 9.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 58.4% FG)

In reality, there is no true shooting guard among the five, as it’s essentially a three-forward lineup. There aren’t many programs blessed with the size of Arizona, and rebounding should again be a strength. Hollis-Jefferson’s greater role and Ashley’s return will be among the team’s early storylines. Then, there is Johnson’s likely one-and-done campaign. With a senior running the show, the Wildcats are an early contender to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.

Key reserves:

  • SG Gabe York (Jr, 6’3”, 180 lbs, 6.7 PPG, 38.5% on 3-pointers)
  • SG Kadeem Allen (Jr, 6’3”, 180 lbs.)
  • SG Elliott Pitts (So, 6’5”, 180 lbs, 1.8 PPG, 39.3% on 3-pointers)
  • F Craig Victor (Fr, 6’7”, 205 lbs.)
  • C Dusan Ristic (Fr, 7’0”, 240 lbs.)

Reports out of Tucson suggest that York has Miller’s early vote of confidence for a big leap. When Ashley went down with his foot injury last year, it was York who stepped in as part of a smaller lineup at the end of the regular season. Offense should not be an issue for him, but how big of a jump can York make defensively? Pitts is another capable deep threat. Although he likely will not see the same minutes as York, expect him to be called in for spurts to help spread the floor. The other three players are all newcomers, with Allen projected to be one of the better junior college transfers in the country after averaging 25.9 PPG to go with 5.9 APG and 2.3 SPG while nabbing Player of the Year honors. Think Mark Lyons circa-2013 for Arizona, only without the point guard responsibility. The extent of the depth will depend on the development of Victor and Ristic. The only true backup point guard to spell McConnell will be freshman Parker Jackson-Cartwright.

Tracy McDannald (18 Posts)

Tracy McDannald spent the last three years covering the Arizona Wildcats. Baseball ends when college basketball is getting ready to begin, and vice versa. Coincidence? Nope, just perfect.

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