Sean Miller

2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 4 Arizona Wildcats

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 27-8, 12-6 Pac-12 (t-2nd); Lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16

Head Coach: Sean Miller (5th season at Arizona: 96-43 overall, 48-24 Pac-12)

Key Losses: Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom, Grant Jerrett, Angelo Chol

Newcomers: Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. McConnell, Zach Peters, Elliott Pitts

Projected Lineup

G: T.J. McConnell, Jr.
G: Nick Johnson, Jr.
F: Aaron Gordon, Fr.
F: Brandon Ashley, So.
C: Kaleb Tarczewski, So.
Bench: Jordin Mayes, Sr.; Gabe York, So.; Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Fr.; Zach Peters, Fr.

They’ll be good because …: Once again, Sean Miller brought in a loaded recruiting class, this one with enough firepower to offset the fact that Arizona not only lost three of their top four scorers from a season ago, but that two former blue-chip recruits left the program with eligibility remaining. The biggest name of the bunch is obviously Aaron Gordon, a top five recruit that is spending his one-and-done season in Tucson.

He’s far from the only addition, however. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell will take over the point guard role where he will be a better fit than Mark Lyons was. Losing Solomon Hill’s leadership will hurt, but freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be capable of replacing his versatile role in the lineup. Add in the return of the underrated Nick Johnson as well as sophomore big men Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, who should improve as sophomores, and Miller will have plenty of talent to work with this year.

Nick Johnson (AP) and Aaron Gordon (Arizona Athletics)

But they might disappoint because …: The reason that Gordon is at Arizona is because they will allow him to play on the perimeter. Gordon, who has drawn comparisons to Blake Griffin for his ability to posterize anyone and everyone between him and a rim, believes that his future lies as a small forward in the NBA, and that may be true. He’s a gifted athlete that is capable of knocking down a three. If he keeps working, there’s no reason that can’t happen … down the road.

Those last three words are key, because as of right now, Gordon simply won’t be as effective on the perimeter as he will playing inside. Remember how good Derrick Williams was for Arizona during the 2010-2011 season? Well Gordon is basically a more athletic and more skilled Derrick Williams. Now let’s factor in that Arizona’s roster makeup is perfect for him to play the four. He’ll share front court minutes with Ashley and Tarczewski while allowing natural wing Hollis-Jefferson to see more minutes. Instead of struggling to prove himself against college threes, Gordon would be dominating college fours that try to stay with him on the perimeter while also defending the rim on the defensive end of the floor.

Outlook: Even with the additions that Oregon made this offseason, Arizona is the most talented team in the Pac-12. They have a potential all-american in Gordon, two promising big men in Ashley and Tarczewski, and a back court of McConnell and Johnson that is much better than it looks on paper. Winning the conference should be the bare minimum for this group; they enter the season as a Final Four favorite and a legitimate contender to win the national title.

While I hate to beat the point to death, the bottom line is that Arizona’s best chance of reaching those lofty expectations will be if Gordon plays the majority of his minutes in the front court for a couple of reasons. For starters, Arizona has a pair of terrific defenders in the back court with McConnell and Johnson. Add in Hollis-Jefferson, and Miller’s club will be able to apply nightmarish pressure defensively. Now imagine if, by chance, any of those three got beat to the rim. Can you imagine trying to finish over someone as athletic as Gordon?

That’s not the only issue. Arizona is already going to have issues shooting the ball from the perimeter. Gordon is capable of hitting a three, but he’s anything-but a great perimeter shooter. Playing the four, he’ll have a lot more time and space to get off those threes, because opposing big men aren’t going to want to close out long and risk getting burned for a dunk. Arizona can still win the Pac-12 if Miller plays Gordon on a wing, but the Wildcats won’t be nearly as dangerous.

Illinois’ injury woes continue as starting center needs knee surgery

George Niang,Abdel Nader,Mike Thorne, Jr.
AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
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Illinois suffered another blow in what has already turned out to be a brutal season.

Mike Thorne is expected to miss the rest of the season after tearing his meniscus. He reportedly underwent surgery on Monday to repair the injury.

Thorne, a transfer from Charlotte, was starting at center for the Illini and doing a good job of it as well. He was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 boards, although Illinois has started off the season 3-4.

The reason for that slow start has mainly been those injuries. Tracy Abrams is already out for the season after tearing his achilles, and the Illini training room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Kendrick Nunn just returned two games ago from surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament. LeRon Black is still getting back to speed after offseason knee surgery. Jaylon Tate is back after dislocating a finger. Jalen Coleman-Lands was slowed by a stress fracture.

John Groce entered this season on the hot seat, and dealing with all of these injuries certainly isn’t helping his cause.

NEW PODCAST: Recapping Feast Week

Kris Dunn
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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We talk about a lot of stuff of the podcast today, mainly because a lot of stuff happened since we last spoke with you all.

For starters, we need to discuss the ‘realness’ of Syracuse and Xavier. Are they both truly top 15 teams, or do they just have top 15 resumes? We also dive into Chris Mack’s epic troll-job of Dayton at the Advocare Invitational final.

Other topics we touched on: Whether or not Scott is ever going to apologize to Wayne Selden, Wichita State’s tournament hopes, Texas A&M and whether we’d take Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn or Denzel Valentine today.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here. It’s the quickest way to get access on your cell phone or tablet.