Despite key losses, Arizona could compete for Pac-12 crown

Nov 15, 2018, 12:34 PM

FILE - In this March 15, 2018, file photo, Arizona coach Sean Miller calls out during a first-round...

FILE - In this March 15, 2018, file photo, Arizona coach Sean Miller calls out during a first-round game against Buffalo in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Boise, Idaho. When specifics about Title IX reporting requirements were added to Miller’s contract this year, the school said to expect similar language in its other coaching contracts. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Disbelief ran through the hearts of Arizona fans everywhere as the buzzer sounded on March 15: Arizona was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament at the hands of No. 13 seed Buffalo.

Some were calling for Sean Miller’s job, others were more patient.

To make matters worse, Arizona fans knew deep down that its top players — Deandre Ayton, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier — were soon to leave the program. They weren’t wrong. All either declared for the draft or graduated from the university.

Many assumed Arizona would fall off without its stars from last year. But with a superb recruiting class and a few prominent transfers, the Wildcats seem to once again be a strong team.

Sure, none of Arizona’s first three opponents, Houston Baptist, Cal Poly and UTEP, are exactly powerhouses. Regardless, the Wildcats won in head-turning fashion in each of the victories by a combined 84 points.

The most impactful player so far has been Brandon Randolph. Now a sophomore, Randolph likely benefited from a year backing up guards Trier, Alkins and Parker Jackson-Cartwright.

Last year, Randolph was more of a role player, averaging just over 11 minutes and 3.7 points per game. In the first few contests, Randolph has been the team’s leading scorer, scoring 18.7 points per game.

Not all responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of Randolph, however. Nine Wildcats are averaging more than 10 minutes per game, which provides much-needed depth to a young squad.

So far, this team has been consistent on the offensive end, averaging 83.7 points per game. A 47.8 percentage from the field certainly isn’t elite, but it’s a good start.

Additionally, Arizona has dominated on the glass. Averaging 46.5 rebounds per game, the Wildcats are ranked 29th in the NCAA in the aforementioned statistic.

Perhaps even more dominant has been Arizona’s work on the defensive end.

After three games, Arizona has forced 18 turnovers per contest, along with 7.3 steals per game. The Wildcats have also showed their prowess in on-ball defense, limiting opponents to a measly field-goal percentage of 34.5.

Despite Arizona’s lack of size this year, Miller praised the team’s dedication in his UTEP postgame presser.

“We’re working really hard at it,” Miller said. “Our team is a group of guys who believe they can do it; we’ll see.”

Have there been some flaws so far? Absolutely. Free throws have stood out as an issue that still needs work.

The Wildcats have hit 68.4 percent from the free-throw line. While there are certainly worse percentages, a team with the skill of Arizona’s should undoubtedly be shooting in the 70s or 80s from the line.

But even with some trouble at the charity strike, Arizona has looked like a complete team through its first three games. And with a so-so Pac-12, Arizona can compete for the conference’s crown.

Behind No. 13 Oregon, No. 20 UCLA and Washington, the Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the “Conference of Champions.” Placing behind Oregon came as no shock, for the Ducks are among the most talented teams in the country, but Arizona has the right to feel slighted by its fourth-place projection.

UCLA is still a skilled team, but without Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh, the Bruins narrowly skated past Long Beach State at home and are unproven thus far.

A much-improved squad a year ago, Washington under Mike Hopkins is certainly trending in the right direction, but not much is known about the Huskies’ chances to contend. In fact, they were crushed against an admittedly strong Auburn team and barely took down San Diego at home.

After three games, not much is known about this year’s Pac-12 landscape. But after the first week of the season, half of the conference has already lost. Because of this apparent mediocrity, Arizona has a decent-to-good chance at challenging for the Pac-12 title.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot of basketball still to be played before conference season.

More will be known about Arizona come December when it has the Maui Jim Maui Invitational and four other non-conference games under its belt.

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