Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
After winning 27 games and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012-13, big things were expected of the Arizona Wildcats in 2013-14 and Sean Miller’s team delivered. Despite having to replace three of their top four scorers the Wildcats won 33 games and a regular season Pac-12 title, reaching the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament as well. Arizona didn’t have the deepest rotation, especially after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season in early February with a foot injury, but they had talent, athleticism and a stingy half-court defense that was among the best in the country.
Even more is expected of the Wildcats in 2014-15, with Ashley back to full strength as he joins point guard T.J. McConnell and center Kaleb Tarczewski as the team’s returning starters. Add in the likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York, who were reserves a season ago, and one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, led by small forward Stanley Johnson, and on paper the depth issue that Arizona had to manage in 2013-14 isn’t expected to be an issue this season.
However, even with that being the case, and Arizona being considered to be one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, there are still questions to be answered. The biggest? How will Arizona account for the loss of starters Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, with their intangibles being just as — if not more — important as the numbers they provided.
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“One of the strengths of last year’s team was our team chemistry,” Miller said at the team’s media day last month. “We had a group of high-character players that were on a mission to have a successful season as a team. Obviously a year ago every one of them wanted to do well individually, but everybody understood that first and foremost we were going to do it as a team.
“And with that team success the individual accolades would follow, which is exactly what happened.”
There may have been no player who better fits into those words than Johnson, who averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The numbers were good but Johnson’s leadership was even better, ultimately resulting in his being named Pac-12 Player of the Year and a finalist for the Naismith national Player of the Year award. Johnson’s leadership impacted the program both on and off the court, with the camaraderie factoring into the team being able to go as far as it did without Ashley.
And in regard to Gordon, who accounted for 12.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game last season, the label of being a “one and done” prospect didn’t have an impact on the way he played the game. Gordon simply did the things he did best, seamlessly fitting into the Arizona attack.
“I think that one credit I give Aaron is he always was true to himself,” Miller said at Pac-12 media day last month. “We gave him a role and he did it to the best of his ability. We’re at that point now where, as we start to define roles, it’s important that guys stay within the framework of that role, embrace it, do the very best they can.”
“In Nick and Aaron’s case, part of what made them so good, they really didn’t try to be a whole lot of what they weren’t. They tried to bring their array of skills that they were already good at to the table, not just in games but every day.”
Both players were key defensively for a team that finished the season ranked first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per kenpom.com), and they were also ranked in the top ten nationally in both field goal percentage (fourth) and scoring (sixth) defense. Athleticism, which Arizona didn’t lack last season and certainly won’t in 2014-15, helps but factors such as chemistry and execution are just as important. Building a similar level of chemistry is what this current Arizona team is working to do, and the process won’t be an easy one even with the amount of individual talent on the roster.
In addition to the starters, players such as junior Gabe York, sophomore Elliott Pitts and freshman Craig Victor will look to earn opportunities as well. With Ashley out of the lineup York made 12 starts, reaching double figures in five of those games and finishing the season with an average of 6.7 points per game. Perimeter shooting, a sore spot for the Wildcats last season, remains an issue that needs to be addressed with the hope being that players such as York can step forward.
Talent is a required attribute of any team looking to put together an exemplary season. But even for the most talented of teams it’s the intangibles like leadership and chemistry that separate a good season and a special one. As is the case for any team, Arizona will need time to establish roles and camaraderie as they look to take that next step, with the ultimate goal being to duplicate the feat accomplished by the 1997 team (they won the national title in Indianapolis, cite of this year’s Final Four). And therein lies the greatest challenge facing Arizona this season.
“It’s up to guys like Brandon now, myself, to rekindle that [chemistry of last season’s team],” Miller noted last month. “We find ourselves as we try to do it, it doesn’t happen in 12 days. It certainly doesn’t happen when you’re welcoming such a big group of new players into a cast that has a big group of guys that have been there before.
“I think part of it is the quest of bringing everyone together, a big challenge for us at this point.”