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Arizona Wildcats near top of many too-early rankings

Arizona head coach Sean Miller talks to Parker Jackson-Cartwright (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

For the first time in Sean Miller’s Arizona tenure, his Wildcats were bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This past season, UA went 25-9, finished tied for fourth in the Pac-12 and and saw its season end when it fell to Wichita State in what was mostly a non-competitive game.

Coming off a pair of seasons that saw Arizona among the nation’s best teams as it reached the Elite 8 twice, it was not the type of campaign folks in Tucson have come to expect.

But while 2015-16 may have been a let down, it appears likely to be the exception rather than a trend.

Though there is still plenty that must play out with regards to recruiting and transfers, as sites are publishing their admittedly early Top 25 rankings for next season, the Wildcats are consistently seen near the top.

Over at ESPN, Eamonn Brennan has Arizona 12th.

How can you tell when your program and/or coach is awesome? When you go 25-9 … and it’s a “down” season. Or when you lose four seniors … and everyone expects you to get better. Such is life under Sean Miller in Tucson where the Wildcats will bid farewell to leading scorers Ryan Anderson and Gabe York, as well as back-line fixture Kaleb Tarczewski, and enter 2016-17 as a likely Pac-12 co-favorite with a team that just earned a No. 1 seed. Keep a particular watch on guard Allonzo Trier, whose midseason injury reduced his role as a freshman but whose scoring gave Arizona a different dimension, and he could be much better as a sophomore.

Brennan has Arizona as the second-highest Pac-12 team behind No. 10 Oregon, while UCLA also makes an appearance at No. 24.

CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish is a bit more fond of the Wildcats, however, as he has them ninth in his rankings.

Noting who Arizona is losing (Anderson, York, Tarczewski, Mark Tollefsen, Justin Simon) as well as who is expected to join the roster (Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons, Terrance Ferguson), the writer is confident in the Cats.

Why the Wildcats are ranked here: Alonzo Trier’s announcement that he’s definitely returning for his sophomore season ensures the Wildcats will be a factor on the national level again. If Oregon doesn’t win the Pac-12, Arizona likely will — especially if five-star wing Terrance Ferguson enrolls in Tucson, which is what we’re projecting.

Like Brennan, Parrish also has the Ducks ranked ahead of the Wildcats, with Oregon being listed eighth. However, he also has UCLA (11) and USC (14) as Pac-12 schools who should be quite good next season.

Another site that has Arizona ranked highly is Yahoo!, where Jeff Eisenberg has them 12th. He has Oregon sixth, UCLA 16th and USC 18th. For the Wildcats, he points to the returning talent as well as Ray Smith, who was with the team last season but missed the entire year due to a torn ACL.

Outlook: Monday’s announcement that Trier is returning for his sophomore season is huge for Arizona. Not only is the promising 6-foot-4 guard instantly one of the favorites to win Pac-12 player of the year next spring, his perimeter scoring should ease the pressure on the Wildcats’ array of talented newcomers to shoulder a heavy load right away. Set to join Trier in Tucson are a pair of top 20 guards, a highly skilled 6-foot-11 stretch forward from Finland and an elite wing prospect who sat out all of this past season with a torn ACL. Throw in veteran point guards Allen and Jackson-Cartwright and returning centers Ristic and Comanche and this is an Arizona team with a good blend of youth and experience. There may be some early growing pains as the newcomers and returners mesh but the Wildcats should be formidable by conference play.

 

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