The Arizona Wildcats are once again projected to be one of the best basketball teams in the country in 2014-15 season.
Because while they lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson to the NBA Draft, the players who are returning — as well as some impressive newcomers — are expected to help Sean Miller’s team contend for a spot in the Final Four.
And according to Jeff Goodman in an ESPN Insider piece, they’ll have the benefit of the country’s best starting lineup.
We went with the Wildcats in the top spot due to the edge in experience and also in defense. It’s difficult to imagine Sean Miller going with anything except for the starting group we list here. T.J. McConnell is a fifth-year senior and Kaleb Tarczewski has started for the past two seasons. Perimeter shooting will once again be a concern with Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the wings. Johnson is physically ready despite being a freshman, and Hollis-Jefferson should benefit from his time in the starting lineup last season after Ashley went down with a season-ending injury.
F – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6-7, 215, Soph.
F – Brandon Ashley, 6-8, 230, Jr.
C – Kaleb Tarczewski, 7-0, 235, Jr.
G – T.J. McConnell, 6-1, 195, Sr.
G – Stanley Johnson, 6-6, 225, Fr.
Other possibilities: SG Gabe York
McConnell, who will be playing his second and final season with Arizona, averaged 8.4 points, 5.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game last season while shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range. He proved to be an excellent fit running Miller’s offense, and his leadership was invaluable.
Tarczewski, a junior, took a big step in his sophomore campaign when he averaged 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 58 percent from the field and 76 percent from the free throw line. Assuming he takes another step forward, “Zeus” may be one of the best centers in the country, let alone the Pac-12.
Ashley, also a junior, had his season cut short after just 22 games due to a broken foot. While he was on the court, however, the Wildcats were undefeated, with the forward averaging 11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and one assist per game on 52 percent shooting. He also made 38 percent of his three-point attempts, and provides an all-around game that helps Arizona space the floor while keeping its size advantage on the court.
Hollis-Jefferson, a sophomore, exploded onto the scene late in the season and in the NCAA Tournament. One of the more versatile players in the country, he averaged 9.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 49 percent from the field, but averaged 14 points per game in the team’s run to the Elite 8 and likely would have been a first-round pick in the NBA Draft had he decided to leave school early.
York, a junior, found his way into the starting lineup last season after Ashley went down, and responded by averaging 6.7 points per game while shooting 37 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range. An elite athlete, his defense improved enough last season to earn him more time on the floor. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, the Wildcats are hoping he becomes consistent enough from the outside to space the floor for its other threats.
While Arizona’s returning players would make for a pretty good lineup on their own, it may be newcomer Stanley Johnson who pushes this team over the top. One of the highest-ranked players in the freshman class of 2014, the wing player is known to be a good athlete as well as excellent shooter from outside. If he can step in and be productive as a true freshman, the Wildcats will be a very dangerous squad.
After Arizona, Goodman lists Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Wisconsin.