Arizona Preview: Can These ‘Cats Be Elite?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 11th, 2015

Leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite has been evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Today, we take one step closer to wrapping up our trip around the league with a visit to Tucson, the home of the repeat champion Wildcats.

Arizona Wildcats

Over the past two season, Sean Miller’s club has dominated the Pac-12 on the way to consecutive regular season conference championships and a pair of Elite Eight appearances. (Damn you, Wisconsin!) But, the past two offseasons, this program has put the likes of Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nick Johnson, Stanley Johnson and T.J. McConnell into the NBA pipeline. Outside of another group of Wildcats out east a ways, there are very few programs in America that can sustain those kinds of losses and yet retain the ability to make deep runs into the NCAA Tournament. Sean Miller hopes to prove this season that they’re among those programs on that very short list.

Sean Miller Is Keeping His Program Stocked With Talent

Sean Miller Is Keeping His Program Stocked With Talent. (Getty)

Strengths. Let’s just get right to the point: talent. They return center Kaleb Tarczewski, the team’s sole returning starter, but bring back contributors from last year’s team like Gabe York, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic. They add in a couple of newly-eligible Division I transfers in Ryan Anderson (Boston College) and Mark Tollefsen (San Francisco), plus a former JuCo Player of the Year in Kadeem Allen, who redshirted last season in Tucson. Throw in another strong Miller recruiting class, highlighted by five-star guard Allonzo Trier, and there is plenty of talent up and down the Arizona roster.

Weaknesses. Two concerns: (1) that talent and (2) defense. First, the last two seasons, those big names listed above? Half of those (Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson) were first-round NBA picks. Look at Draft Express’ current 2016 mock draft and there isn’t a single Wildcat there. In 2017, there’s Trier and Rustic, but not near the lottery level. In other words, while there is undeniably talent in Tucson, it is not up to the level of Miller’s Elite Eight teams in recent history. Second, those past two teams were built, first and foremost, on smothering defense; first in defensive efficiency two seasons ago; third last season; both squads allowing about 88 adjusted points per 100 possessions. With elite defenders like Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon, McConnell and Nick Johnson absent from this roster, it is hard to see this team being able to turn off the water on the defensive end their way their predecessors did.

Kaleb Tarczewski Is The Sole Returning Starter From Last Year's Elite Eight Club (Zach Long)

Kaleb Tarczewski Is The Sole Returning Starter From Last Year’s Elite Eight Club. (Zach Long/AP)

Non-conference Tests. There are four real good tests on the Wildcats’ non-conference slate. First, they’ll host Boise State in a non-bracketed game in the Wooden Legacy tournament. Then, there’s that Wooden Legacy in Orange County, where they’ll face Santa Clara, before possibly seeing Kris Dunn and Providence in the semifinal round, with the potential to face either Michigan State or Boise State again on the final day of that tournament. The following weekend, Arizona will renew its budding rivalry with Gonzaga when they reprise last year’s classic with a visit to Spokane. Then, mixed in amidst a few halfway-decent games in December (Fresno State, Missouri, Long Beach State), they’ll host a UNLV program that, while noted for underachieving the past few years, is definitely full of talented ballplayers.

Toughest Conference Stretch. If the Wildcats hope to capture a third-straight regular season Pac-12 title, they’re probably going to have to come up big down the home stretch. In the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, they’ve got to head up the mountain to face Colorado and then Utah in one of the tougher road-trips in the conference. Then they return to McKale to face Cal in the second-to-last game of the Pac-12 slate, in a game that could have significant conference-title implications before wrapping up with Stanford. Those four games, particularly the middle two at Utah and home against Cal, could be massive.

Biggest Story. It’s a compliment and a curse: the best coach never to have been to a Final Four. Sean Miller’s been close. Oh so close. A Jamelle Horne three in the corner to win doesn’t go. A mess of a last possession in Anaheim ends in a Nick Johnson attempt after the buzzer. And then how even to describe Wisconsin’s second half last year when the Badgers shot approximately a million percent from the field to douse the Wildcats’ hopes. While this year’s squad may not be among the favorites in the nation to make it to the sport’s final weekend, until Miller finally breaks through (and let’s be serious, everyone is expecting him to make multiple Final Fours in his career eventually), his failure to do so will remain one of college basketball’s recurring storylines. Wouldn’t it be apropos of the unpredictability of college hoops for Miller to get over the hump in a year without his most talented roster.

If Everything Goes Right…  This season may have more ups and downs than the Wildcat fans are used to, but if Miller can get his new look unit to congeal into the type of defensive unit that he can be proud of, guys like Trier, Anderson and Allen may provide more offensive punch than the last two teams have displayed.

If Nothing Goes Right… Guys like Trier and Allen don’t live up to Miller’s high defensive standards. Big guys Tarczewski and Anderson don’t have the versatility and athleticism that recent Arizona bigs have had. And Allen and Jackson-Cartwright struggle trying to take over at the point. This team will still be good, but there are a lot of questions here that could have negative answers.

Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG Parker Jackson-Cartwright (So, 5’11”, 170 lbs, 2.9 PPG, 1.8 APG in 9.6 MPG)
  • SG Gabe York (Sr, 6’3” 190 lbs, 9.2 PPG, 21. RPG, 40 3P%)
  • SF Mark Tollefson (Sr, 6’9” 205 lbs, 14.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG at San Francisco)
  • PF Ryan Anderson (Sr, 6’9” 235 lbs, 14.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG at Boston College in 2013-14)
  • C Kaleb Tarczewski (Sr, 7’0”, 250 lbs, 9.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG)

There are a lot of question marks if this is the ‘Cats starting lineup, from one on down the line. First and foremost, who’s the point? Jackson-Cartwright is the pure point on the team, but it was Allen who got the nod at the one in the exhibition game. Allen wasn’t great in that game, but still, he’ll probably need to earn minutes at the one in part because of the questions at that position, but also because of the log-jam at the two. Second, who’s your go-to scorer with the shot clock running down? Third, can Tollefson and Anderson come near the same level of production against a higher level of competition and with a higher level of teammate? And third, is there enough floor spacing in this lineup with two big guys who are most comfortable in and around the paint. This may be the group to start the season, but luckily Miller has a lot of talented parts to mix and match.

Key Reserves

  • G Kadeem Allen (Jr, 6’3” 200 lbs, 25.9 PPG, 5.9 APG at JC in 2013-14)
  • SG Allonzo Trier (Fr, 6’6” 210 lbs)
  • C Dusan Ristic (So, 7’0” 255 lbs, 3.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG in 8.6 MPG)
  • G Elliott Pitts (Jr, 6’5”, 185 lbs, 3.5 PPG, 1.0 RPG in 14.9 MPG)
  • C Chance Comanche (Fr, 6’11” 205 lbs)

Allen is not a pure point guard by any means, but either him or freshman Justin Simon will need to play a part in holding down that particular fort. If nothing else, this would give Miller the chance to add another scorer to the team’s lineup. Trier is also a guy who could make a play for starter’s minutes, especially if his motor and defensive acumen are up to Miller’s standards. Pitts and Ristic are known quantities who seem poised to take on bigger roles this season. Ristic in particular has big upside as a post scorer. Comanche may step into a role simply based on numbers; realistically, large contributions are at least another summer in the weight room and at the training table down the line.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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