Arizona basketball’s Final Four potential never made it off the runway
After a down season where its team was unrecognizable at times, Arizona basketball was going to be back at full force for the 2016-17 season with one of its stronger recruiting classes in the Sean Miller era on its way and a collection of players unlike any Miller had in the past.
Now, less than five months removed from that season, the buzz of “next year” is already gone.
The list of players accumulating that buzz that are gone is ridiculous to recite, and that’s not even mentioning guards Justin Simon and Elliott Pitts transferring in the offseason.
Five-star wing Terrance Ferguson was going to bring Miller something he’d never had before in Tucson: a lights-out shooter and bucket-getter who also had the athletic profile to give him what he wants on defense. Instead of having his one-and-done year in Tucson, Ferguson decided a better place for that — where he could also earn some money for his family a year early — was in Australia.
Sophomore guard Allonzo Trier had a terrific debut season, showcasing his dynamic scoring game that was as-advertised and giving the Wildcats a unique offensive option that Miller hasn’t had in his Arizona tenure. Looking to perhaps have an All-American-type season, Trier’s eligibility is instead in jeopardy after rumors of a suspension surfaced. He did not dress for either exhibition game.
Like Ferguson, sophomore center Chance Comanche has the athleticism at center Tucson hasn’t seen in a very long time. With junior center Dusan Ristic and freshman power forward Lauri Markkanen, he was expected to form a tantalizing trio of big men for Miller to switch in and out over the course of the game. Instead, Comanche was suspended indefinitely for academics, though he could be back in the fold for the season opener against Michigan State on Friday.
Lastly, and the most depressing of all for Arizona fans, redshirt freshman forward Ray Smith unfathomably tore his ACL for the third year in a row and stepped away from the sport. Smith’s mix of energy, defensive potential, shooting, ball-handling and athleticism at 6-foot-8 had him considered a potential first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft and a two-way beast for the Wildcats.
Now, his career is over.
The hype surrounding Arizona over the summer was due to its depth and versatility, the notion that players X, Y and Z were not starting but would for 99 percent of other teams.
Now, those players must step up and keep Arizona in contention for a Pac-12 championship.
It starts with senior Kadeem Allen, who despite his massive struggles at point guard last season was the defensive presence the team desperately needed. Allen’s a terrific scorer who adapted well to a role change last season, but with Trier potentially out, he is back in the role of a leading point-getter mentality and playing off the ball.
Allen will be able to do that because of junior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright. The generously listed 5-foot-11 floor general has spent two seasons learning how to overcome his size discrepancies and is now ready to run a team, something Allen has to be thankful for.
The same circumstances Jackson-Cartwright faced the last two years coming off the bench goes for freshman five-star combo guard Kobi Simmons this year.
Simmons’ vertical speaks for his athleticism on its own and running a high-tempo offense could bring the best out of him, but that isn’t how Miller plays. Simmons will need to play under control and become a major contributor defensively to earn his playing time.
The consensus is that Arizona’s highest ceiling as a team includes Simmons playing a major role, but it’s unlikely for that to happen this season.
By far, the losses before the season hurt the most on the wing, where the team is all of a sudden as barren as last season.
The Wildcats are solely relying on freshman and five-star recruit Rawle Alkins, the latest prototype of the Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson build — a strong, tough as nails presence who will work his tail off on the glass and defensively.
The strength of the team will be on the interior, where Markkanen will look to carry over the momentum he built this summer that has put him in the lottery pick discussion for next year’s draft. Markkanen’s stretch-four ability meshes well with Ristic, whose superior touch around the rim makes him a near automatic finisher on mismatches. At 7-foot and nearly 250 pounds, that’s going to be the case most nights in college basketball.
Miller still has enough talent for Arizona to be a very good basketball team.
But the reality with the losses is that he needs even more out of players like Allen, Alkins and Simmons to maintain a top 10-15 spot in the polls and be a threat to make the ever-elusive Final Four bid. That’s still possible, especially if Comanche and Trier are able to return, but if Arizona fans were expecting the program to get back into the gear it was in from 2012-14, that might be one more year away.
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