TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona went through one of the program’s most tumultuous seasons in 2017-18.
The Wildcats were ensnared in an FBI probe into recruiting before the season started, had a key player go down for a long stretch and were linked to the federal probe a second time late in the year.
Arizona still managed to win the Pac-12 tournament but the culmination of setbacks and distractions took a toll on the Wildcats once the NCAA Tournament started, leading to a surprising first-round exit.
Three players from that team were lost to graduation and three more are headed to the NBA, leaving the Wildcats with plenty of work to do this offseason if they’re going to remain among college basketball’s elite.
“Coming through this period of time isn’t always easy, but coming out on the other side, becoming bigger, stronger and better than ever, learning things and building our program. That’s what you talk about,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Thursday. “It isn’t just pressing a reset button and doing things completely different. There’s a lot of things we’re very proud of that we wouldn’t change. There are a lot of things we have to improve on and that’s obviously on the leadership.”
Arizona’s last season hit a snag before it started. Assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was among 10 people arrested in September in a federal probe into shady recruiting practices, casting a dark cloud over the Wildcats.
Then Rawle Alkins broke his foot during preseason workouts and missed the first nine games. After an ugly trip to the Bahamas, the Wildcats pulled together and started winning games, remaining in the AP Top 25 most of the season.
Another bombshell dropped just before the Pac-12 tournament, when reports surfaced that Miller had been caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to lure a recruit to the school. Miller denied the report, kept his job and Arizona marched through the conference tournament, looking like one of the nation’s top teams headed into the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the Wildcats stumbled in Boise, Idaho, succumbing to a barrage of baskets by Buffalo to lose in the first round.
“The totality of the season, beginning in the fall and getting to the Pac-12 Tournament took a toll on all of us,” Miller said. “I don’t know if we necessarily entered this year’s NCAA Tournament the most excited, eager, ready, happy as we could as a group.”
Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Keanu Pinder graduated, then Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Alkins opted to leave early for the NBA.
Arizona appeared to be headed to a rebuilding season with the losses and a recruiting class that fell apart due to the FBI investigation.
The Wildcats lost top point guard Jahvon Quinerly shortly after Richardson’s arrest and Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef, announced he was withdrawing his commitment to Arizona after the second round of allegations hit. Highly touted point guard Brandon Williams followed suit not long after, leaving the Wildcats’ recruiting cupboard bare.
Slowly, Miller started to rebuild his recruiting class, starting with Southern California guard Devonaire Doutrive. Belgian forward Omar Thielemans followed and Williams gave the class a big boost by recommitting to Arizona.
Arizona also will have Duke transfer Chase Jeter, an athletic 6-foot-10 forward who sat out last season, with graduate transfers Justin Coleman (Samford) and Ryan Luther (Pittsburgh).
They’ll join a roster that includes six returning players, led by Dylan Smith, Ira Lee, Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot.
“Most of the teams we’ve had, the younger incoming talent is very important. Many of those guys came in the door ready to go,” Miller said. “Most of the time, the success starts with the returners. They improve from one year to the next, they’re the most experienced, they lead and create our culture for the guys who have never been here before.”
Arizona will have a different look next season from years past. With Kaleb Tarczewski, Ristic and Ayton, the Wildcats featured a big body in the middle to anchor their talented wing players.
In 2018-19, Miller plans to follow the mold created by Villanova coach Jay Wright the past few years by filling his roster with multi-talented, multi-dimensional wing players and guards. Villanova has won two of the past three national championships with a sort of positionless basketball and Arizona will have a similar style.
“The way of playing moving forward for us is to have more wings and guards on the court at the same time, to have more spacing and quick movement,” Miller said. “As you play with more skill and the ball moves and you spread out a little more, you can’t lose that second part, the rebounding.”