TUCSON, Ariz. — Expectations have come with the territory at Arizona, from
the winning foundation Lute Olson built to the resurgence led by Sean Miller.
This season, with a solid core of returning players, another stellar class of
freshmen and a pass-first point guard, the hype may burst through the McKale
Not that it matter to the No. 6 Wildcats. They not only expect to be considered
one of the nation’s best teams, they welcome it.
“We embrace it — it’s what every college kid wants to play for,” junior guard
Nick Johnson said. “At the same time, none of that matters now. We’ve just been
working hard so we achieve our goals.”
There’s plenty of reasons to believe these Wildcats can reach whatever goals
Arizona has several key players back from a team that won 27 games and reached
the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last season, including Johnson, Brandon
Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Jordin Mayes.
Miller has had a knack for pulling together some of the nation’s best
recruiting classes and this past season was no different, adding dynamic forward
Aaron Gordon and versatile forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Perhaps the biggest difference-maker will be point guard T.J. McConnell.
A transfer from Duquesne, he had to sit out last season, but was able to
practice with the team, so he already knows Miller’s style of play and has
chemistry with the returning players.
With McConnell, Arizona has what it lacked last season: A true point guard.
Mark Lyons did an admirable job in his lone season in Tucson, but was more of a
shooting guard filling the point role. McConnell is a pass-first point guard and
could be the piece that leads this talented group on a deep run in the NCAA
“We like having those kinds of expectations,” McConnell said. “Now we just
have to go out and show that we can live up to them.”
Here’s five things to look for as the Wildcats head into the 2013-14 season:
VERSATILITY: Arizona doesn’t have a ton of depth and Miller will likely play
with a fairly tight rotation. What the Wildcats have is versatility. Ashley,
Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson are all athletic players who can play
multiple positions, so Miller can use a variety of lineups, depending on the
opponent or what he’s trying to do. Arizona can go with a big front line with
Tarczewski in the middle and Ashley at the small forward or can utilize a lineup
where Ashley is the center and Johnson is the small forward. The Wildcats will
be a matchup nightmare for whatever team they play.
GORDON’S IMPACT: College basketball is filled with talented freshmen this
season, including what could be a starting five’s worth at Kentucky. Gordon has
a chance to be the best of the bunch. Long and athletic, the 6-foot-9 forward
can get to the rim, shoot and has a superb all-around game. He’s also been a
winner everywhere he’s been, earning multiple MVP trophies during games and
tournaments over the summer. Miller has been most impressed with Gordon’s work
ethic and willingness to learn, which should only make him better as the season
MCCONNELL’S DEFENSE: McConnell makes good decisions with the ball, evident by
his turnover ratio of 2.5-1 in 2010-11, sixth-best in NCAA history by a
freshman. His biggest impact could be on the defensive end. Though he’s not as
big or athletic as most of the players he goes against, McConnell has great
defensive instincts and anticipation. He averaged 2.8 steals per game at
Duquesne, ranking third and fourth nationally his two seasons there and is
expected to give the Wildcats a boost at the top of their defense.
PERIMETER SHOOTING? Miller’s main concern heading into this season is his
team’s perimeter shooting. For all the talent it has inside, Arizona doesn’t
have many true outside shooters on its roster. Because of that, Miller had his
team spend the summer shooting one perimeter shot after another, saying he
didn’t think there was a team in the country that shot more basketballs than
his. McConnell is a good outside shooter, Johnson has proven to be as well and
the addition of Zach Peters, who got clearance from the NCAA to play this season
after transferring from Kansas, should help.
DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE: For all the questions Arizona has about its ability to
shoot, the Wildcats may be able to make up for any deficiencies with defense.
Johnson, the nephew of Hall of Fame NBA guard Dennis Johnson, is a tenacious
defender and will team with McConnell in what could be the nation’s best
defensive backcourt. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson are capable defenders and enjoy
playing that side of the ball, and will give Miller versatility to throw in
full-court pressure and traps to the man defense he likes to run. The Wildcats
also have the 7-foot Tarczewski to erase any mistakes at the rim.