There are enormous expectations surrounding the Arizona Wildcats basketball program after last season. The Wildcats reached the Elite Eight, but were taken out by the Wisconsin Badgers in overtime.
Last year’s team loses two of its key components in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, who both left school early for the NBA Draft. But there is one freshman that is expected to make people have a short memory.
That freshman is Stanley Johnson.
Johnson, who is a 6-7, 245 pound SHOOTING GUARD, is probably the most physically-imposing player that the program has ever seen. He’ll also see time at small forward, but Arizona also returns Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who showed a ton of promise at that position during his freshman season. Hollis-Jefferson has sort of flown under the radar up to this point for the Cats, but make no mistake, he’ll be out there making some high-flying plays on the offensive end of the court.
While Johnson did not start in Arizona’s exhibition game against Cal Poly Pomona, head coach Sean Miller said not to read too much into his decision. He also stated that there is a clear six-man rotation that this team will primarily use, at least in the early part of the season.
At point guard position, senior T.J. McConnell has the potential to be one of the best point guards in the country. After transferring from Duquesne, McConnell has really found himself under Miller’s system in Tucson. In the Wildcats’ exhibition game, the senior recorded 11 assists and seven rebounds in 28 minutes. Not too bad for an exhibition game.
The other typical guard in the six-man rotation will be junior Gabe York. York got the starting nod over Johnson in the Pomona game, and there will certainly be games when that happens again, based on certain matchups Sean Miller sees. York has improved greatly the past couple of seasons, and he is the team’s biggest threat from beyond the arc. York has a career average of 38% from three-point range in his two seasons at Arizona, and will surely improve in that area due to his off-season work.
Down low, Brandon Ashley returns after suffering a broken foot on February 1st at California last season, a game which turned out to be Arizona’s first loss of the season. Ashley’s injury greatly altered the makeup of last year’s team which made the run to the Elite Eight a little more surprising than it would have been. Ashley looks healthy and confident after his injury, which is going to be huge for this team that has National Championship aspirations.
The player that has made the biggest strides in his game from last year is seven-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski. He is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the post this year. He’s improved his ball skills, and more importantly for Sean Miller, has become a better rebounder and all-around defensive player.
Those are the six guys that will be included in the main rotation for a good amount of the time. Backing up McConnell at point guard will be freshman Parker Jackson-Cartwright. According to Scout.com, PJC was the fifth-ranked point guard in this year’s class. As a junior, he averaged 15 points and eight assists per game, while just turning the ball over an average of once per game. In 2011, he was the California Freshman of the Year.
At shooting guard, Elliott Pitts will likely get a decent amount of minutes. Pitts saw significant minutes after Brandon Ashley went down with his injury. After Ashley’s injury, Sean Miller decided to go with a smaller lineup. In the limited sample size, Pitts managed to shoot nearly 40% from three.
Tarczewski’s backup at center will be another seven-footer in Dusan Ristic. Ristic has been the one freshman this season that has really impressed coach Miller. Ristic is from Serbia, and his offensive game is far more developed than his defensive game, which is good for his future prospects at Arizona. As long as he keeps developing his defense this year, there’s a chance that he’ll start to see more and more minutes as conference season approaches.
The main backup wing player this year will likely be another freshman in Craig Victor. ESPN ranked him as the No. 37 overall recruit in this class, and the top-rated player from the state of Louisiana. Victor has a lot to improve upon this year, and does not seem to be a one-and-done type of guy. He is similar to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson when he showed up on campus. However, Victor won’t be able to get nearly as many minutes as RHJ saw his freshman season.
One minor surprise this season will be junior college transfer Kadeem Allen appears to be redshirting this year. Allen was the National Junior College Player of the Year last season, averaging 25.9 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.3 steals per game at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. Coach Miller said after the exhibition game that he and Allen talked extensively about the junior redshirting this season, based primarily on what this current roster offers. Allen will be able to develop over the next three years in Tucson and will certainly make an impact in the future for the Wildcats. Spending time at Arizona’s top-notch facilities for an extra year can’t hurt a guy like Allen, who will need to gain a little more strength to succeed at Arizona and possibly beyond.
This team has high expectations, as shown by being ranked No. 2 in nearly every national poll behind Kentucky. The Pac-12 does not offer a lot of great competition, with Utah and UCLA being the two teams that pose the biggest threat to Arizona running the table in conference play. That could pose some issues heading into the NCAA Tournament, but there is no doubt that Sean Miller will have this enormously-talented team ready to go each and every game.
*Section Photo credit to Ralph Freso, Getty Images. Featured Photo (above) credit to Casey Sapio, USA Today Sports.