Pretty much from the moment Nick Johnson failed to get a shot off at the end of Arizona’s 64-53 Elite 8 loss to Wisconsin, attention turned to next season.
That’s what happens when your current season ends.
For the Wildcats, 2014-15 really can’t come soon enough. While there will be some departures from the team that won 33 games and the Pac-12 regular season title, there figures to be more than enough talent left to have the team competing for a national championship next season.
That seems to be the consensus, anyway, as there is a long list of “too early” top 25 lists that place Arizona among the top teams in the country.
ESPN.com’s Eamonn Brennan has them number one on his list.
While coach Sean Miller fell agonizingly short of his first-ever Final Four, he (and that legion of hungry Arizona fans) can be comforted knowing that their Wildcats will be every bit the national title contender next season. Miller has delivered so well in recruiting that Arizona could lose star freshman forward Aaron Gordon and junior All-American Nick Johnson and still project as one of the best, deepest teams in the country. Gordon’s departure seems a given, and Johnson is reportedly leaning toward it. Center Kaleb Tarczewski and athletic pivot player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson seem likely to be back. Point guard T.J. McConnell will still be running the show. Brandon Ashley will have recovered from the foot injury that ended his season in February. And incoming recruit Stanley Johnson — the No. 1-ranked small forward and the prize of a loaded five-man haul — might be the most skilled all-around player in the Class of 2014. Miller’s team had one real flaw in 2013-14: its dearth of depth after Ashley’s injury . Even if Johnson, a probably second-round pick, leaves — and that’s a 50-50 proposition right now — this team might be even deeper and more versatile on the offensive end, if not nearly as dominant defensively. Either way, it’s a title favorite. Maybe the title favorite. The future in Tucson is as bright as the midday Arizona sun.
NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster also has Arizona atop his list:
In all likelihood, the Wildcats are going to lose Aaron Gordon, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Nick Johnson leave as well. But as long as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski return, and assuming Brandon Ashley doesn’t go pro, Sean Miller will have another loaded roster at his disposal. They bring in Stanley Johnson, who will be an immediate difference-maker, while Craig Victor and Kadeem Allen will contribute as well.
Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg also thinks the Wildcats are currently the team to beat.
Key losses: F Aaron Gordon (projected to enter NBA Draft), G Nick Johnson (projected to enter NBA Draft), G Jordin Mayes
Key returners: G T. J. McConnell, G/F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, F Brandon Ashley, C Kaleb Tarczewski, G Gabe York, G Eliott Pitts
Notable newcomers: G/F Stanley Johnson, G Parker Jackson-Cartwright, F Craig Victor
Outlook: Whether Arizona is the clear national title favorite or just a contender depends on which of its underclassmen turn pro in the coming weeks. Gordon is likely to leave and Johnson may too even though he’s a projected second-round pick since he can’t play too much better than he did during an All-American junior season. As long as those two are the only key departures and Hollis-Jefferson or Tarczewski aren’t tempted, Arizona will be very, very good. McConnell is the consummate steady pass-first point guard, Hollis-Jefferson, York and highly touted freshman Stanley Johnson complement one-another well at wing and Tarczewski and a now-healthy Ashley anchor the frontcourt. One big question will be if Victor or another newcomer can emerge as a badly needed third big man. It also would help if Jackson-Cartwright is capable of serving as backup point guard to McConnell.
However, most of the writers have Arizona second, trailing only Duke.
Will Sean Miller ever get to the Final Four? This year’s season-ending Elite Eight loss was devastating, but the Wildcats should be positioned well again in 2015. High-soaring freshman Aaron Gordon will likely leave for the NBA, but if All-American guard Nick Johnson returns (he should) then Arizona will have championship potential. Point guard T.J. McConnell will be back, as will blossoming forwards Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and center Kaleb Tarczewski. And Miller brings in reinforcements too, namely top-10 recruit Stanley Johnson, who’s highly versatile.
Recruiting grade: A
And from Jason McIntyre of TheBigLead:
Expected to lose two starters in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, but return enough to start the season as a Final 4 favorite. Kaleb Tarczewski, the 7-footer, will be a junior; Brandon Ashley was the team’s 3rd leading scorer before an injury ended his season; steady point guard TJ McConnell will be a senior, and their top two bench players return as well (athletic Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and sharpshooter Gabe York). Expect explosive shooting guard Stanley Johnson – rated the 3rd best high school player in America – and two other Top 60 recruits to give the Wildcats more depth than they had last season. After reading this story on JUCO star Kadeem Allen, it sounds like he’ll be a major contributor, too.
CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish also has Arizona second.