TUCSON, Arizona — For all the questions surrounding the Pac-12 and its lack of a dominant team, the two-time defending regular season champions may very well be the best bet to take the crown in 2015-16.
No. 13 Arizona may not have the projected lottery picks that they’ve had in each of the last two seasons, but they’re still talented and do have both depth and versatility. Those attributes were on display Saturday night as they beat UNLV 82-70 for their 46th consecutive home victory, doing so despite turning the ball over 18 times with 14 coming in the second half.
Dusan Ristic, whose role has grown in importance due to both the loss of Brandon Ashley and the injury suffered by senior center Kaleb Tarczewski, scored a game-high 20 points and he was efficient in doing so. Not only did Ristic shoot 6-for-8 from the field, but he also shook off his struggles from the foul line by making seven of his eight attempts.
The sophomore may have had just two rebounds on the night, but his ability to score in the post (and even making a three-pointer) was something the Runnin’ Rebels struggled to deal with in the first half. And he’s played well enough to this point to open up some new possibilities for Arizona when Tarczewski returns to the court.
“He’s getting a chance to show what he does every day,” Arizona senior forward Ryan Anderson said of Ristic. “He’s one of our hardest workers, and his skill around the basket is something that can’t really teach and you saw it tonight. He stepped out and made a three and a couple jumpers, but his game around the basket is really unmatched by many people in the country.
“His thing is just getting a chance to play and getting comfortable in our system, and I think as our season continues this time without Kaleb is going to help [Dusan] and our team.”
In Arizona’s last three games Ristic has averaged 14.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and two blocks per game, shooting 68.4 percent from the field. Against UNLV 16 of his 20 points came in the first half, and as a team Arizona scored 26 of its 44 points in the paint. Whether it was post entry feeds or dribble penetration, Arizona was able to penetrate the UNLV defense on a consistent basis.
The Runnin’ Rebels did a better job of closing driving lanes in the second half, and their move to a smaller lineup made necessary by Stephen Zimmerman aggravating a thigh injury suffered in practice earlier in the week was a factor as well. But even with those improvements there was also the issue of defending without fouling for the visitors.
Arizona shot 29-for-39 from the foul line, and their 19-point advantage was one of the key differences between the two teams. In Ristic and Ryan Anderson (17 points, 13 rebounds) the Wildcats have two big men who can get points in the low post, and they also have a guard in Allonzo Trier capable of breaking teams down off the dribble. Each of Arizona’s starters attempted at least five free throws against UNLV, with Ristic and Anderson (11) responsible for 19 of those 39 attempts.
The Wildcats had an advantage in the front court and they took advantage, with Ristic and Anderson producing quality performances as a result.
“I think when you have Dusan and Ryan and they’re active and on the glass, and they’re getting the ball deep…I think we did a good job at times of getting them the ball,” Miller said. “I wish we could have got it to them more, and they could have been even more effective. That’s where our advantage against UNLV was.”
Five Wildcats scored in double figures Saturday night, with Trier and Kadeem Allen adding 15 apiece and Gabe York 11. The question for Arizona will be how they manage the turnovers, especially with their use of both Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright at the point. The Wildcats committed just four in the first half, but 14 in the second half allowed UNLV to pull to within three with just under eight minutes remaining.
This group doesn’t have the margin for error that they did the last two seasons, and they don’t have the security of knowing that they have a clear answer at the point in T.J. McConnell. How Arizona manages the basketball will be critical in a conference that doesn’t have much (if any) separation at the top. And their head coach is confident that the Wildcats have the ability to take better care of the basketball on a consistent basis.
“Fourteen turnovers in the second half is why you leave the game maybe not feeling the way you’d want to after a big home win,” Miller noted. “Our turnovers came in a number of different areas; Gabe and Kadeem combined for ten and that’s not good.”
“When you turn the ball over the way we did [in the second half] any team on our schedule can beat us,” Miller continued. “The good news is, if we can become that team, and I know we can, where we can play a whole 40 minutes with single digits (in turnovers) I believe we can beat anybody. And it’s no more complicated than ‘how much will we improve our turnovers from this point on.'”
Where it was tough to whittle down the back courts to just 15 teams, for the front lines, it was tougher to find 15 units that we truly thought were potentially dominant. Whether it was a result of a lack of depth or a lack of star power, the back end of this list didn’t feel all that overpowering.
The Zags ended up winning out on this list for the simple fact that there isn’t another program in the country with three big men that are as good as this trio. Wiltjer is a prototype stretch four with shooting splits that are reminiscent of Doug McDermott. Karnowski is the rim protector, a 7-foot-1 behemoth that has developed a solid offensive repertoire that includes baby hooks and the ability to dive to the rim in ball-screens actions. And Sabonis may actually be the best of the three, a throwback power forward that plays physical, sets hard screens and is always looking to hit the glass.
As a whole, however, I’m personally not sold, although my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with me. I think Wiltjer is a defensive liability and I worry about lineup flexibility; can you get all three on the floor at the same time? Can Sabonis and Karnowski both be on the court without the shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to spread the floor? If the answer to those questions is yes, than Gonzaga should be a top 15 team. If not, it’s a much different story.
2. North Carolina (Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, Luke Maye)
When the casual ACC hoops fan thinks of North Carolina basketball, they probably think of an uptempo, run-and-gun team built around Roy Williams’ patented secondary break offense. And while that’s true, the best North Carolina teams have always had a couple of big bodies that commanded double-teams on the block. Sean May turned into Tyler Hansbrough who eventually became Tyler Zeller. None of UNC’s bigs have that kind of lottery pick potential, but Meeks, Johnson and James are all above average post scorers. Hicks struggles with his confidence in games, but he’s routinely one of UNC’s best players in practice. If he can put it together this season, the Tar Heels will reach another level.
3. Kentucky (Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis)
On paper, Kentucky probably has the most raw talent along their front line. The problem is that none of their five players have proven anything at the college level. Lee has been good in flashes but has yet to play extended minutes. Poythress struggled with his position identity before tearing his ACL. Humphries is a freshman that enrolled a year early. Willis has always been projected as an end of the rotation kind of guy. Labissiere has the talent to be the National Player of the Year, but until we see how he transitions to the college level, it’s tough to know whether he’s going to be great or just simply good. The good news? It’s hard to imagine all five failing to live up to their individual potential.
4. Maryland (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cevosky)
I’m probably higher on this Maryland group that anyone mostly because I love the potential of running high-low offense through Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Stone is the name you know. A 6-foot-10 four man that can play on the perimeter, he’s a top ten recruit and a potential one and done player. But Carter is the guy that has gotten all the hype since practice started. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season and shedding a good 20 pounds. Dodd and Cevosky are both better than adequate subs as well.
5. Purdue (A.J. Hammons, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan)
Like Gonzaga, I love Purdue’s big men individually even if I don’t love them as a group. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is one of the best big men in the country. He was, more often than not, dialed in last season. Haas is a 7-foot-2 center that showed tons of promise as a freshman, while Edwards, another sophomore, has a chance to be a star at the three after a very good freshman season. Throw in Biggie Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American and a terrific low-post scoring threat, and Matt Painter is going to have some legendary battles in practice. But Haas and Hammons can’t play at the same time. Can Purdue function offensively with Swanigan at the four and Hammons or Haas at the five?
6. Baylor (Rico Gathers, Jonathan Motley, Taureen Waller-Prince)
I love this Baylor group. Waller-Prince is as underrated as anyone in the country, Gathers is an absolute bully in the paint and Motley has a chance to be this season’s breakout star in the Big 12. When all three are on the floor together — which is possible given Waller-Prince’s versatility — they’re going to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The problem? Depth. If Jo Acuil can’t get cleared (he has a heart issue, as if Baylor hasn’t had enough of those), the Bears will have to rely on Terry Maston, who played 11 games as a freshman.
It was hard to know what to do with Kansas here. Bragg is promising, Mickelson and Lucas should be serviceable and Ellis should once again put up first-team all-Big 12 caliber numbers. That’s a good front line, but one that should be closer to No. 15 than No. 7. But if Diallo gets eligible, that changes things, as he’s precisely the piece their missing, an athletic, 6-foot-9 four that plays hard, runs the floor, defends and crashes the glass. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander wasn’t last year, and makes Kansas so much better. He’s also not yet cleared to play. So we slotted them here.
8. Utah (Jakob Poeltl, Brekkot Chapman, Jordan Loveridge, Kyle Kuzma, Chris Reyes)
I like the mix that Larry Krystkowiak has at his disposal here. Poeltl is an elite rim protector with a chance at being a lottery pick, Loveridge is a veteran scoring presence that can space the floor and Chapman and Kuzma are talented sophomores with bright futures. Losing Delon Wright is going to hurt the Utes, but the reason they’ll remain in hunt for a Pac-12 title.
9. Vanderbilt (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson, Samir Sehic)
There’s a chance that Vandy’s ranking here could look far too low by the end of the season. We expect Jones to be a star this season, potentially as the best center in all of college basketball. Baptiste and Roberson both look like quality rotation players and Sehic, a freshman, is an undersized four that always seemed to be able to produce regardless of competition at the high school level. Kornet is the x-factor. People around the program expect the 7-foot-1 sharpshooter to have a big season. If he lives up to the hype, the Commodores will be very dangerous.
There is so much talent on this front line. So much. Morgan and Okonoboh were high profile recruits in the Class of 2014, Jones — a freshman — will be the nation’s best dunker this season and Carter was a starter at Oregon. Zimmerman is the best of a bunch, a versatile, 7-foot lefty whose biggest strength is his ability to pass the ball. Can they live up to their potential is the major question mark here.
11. Virginia (Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarrod Reuter)
Losing Darion Atkins, who was so, so good for the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor, is a bigger blow than some may realize. But Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are both above average post scorers and Isaiah Wilkins is an intriguing prospect that had some promising moments last season. As with just about everyone on Tony Bennett’s roster, these guys are better than their numbers will suggest.
12. Arizona (Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, Mark Tollefsen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche)
Even with Ray Smith done for the year with a torn ACL, the Wildcats deserve a place on this list. That’s what happens when you have this much quality depth. But who is a star in this group? Who scares opposing scouts? Zeus has never lived up to the billing of being a top ten prospect, scouts love Ristic but he has yet to beat out Zeus, Comanche is a freshman that needs a year or two and Tollefson is a transfer from San Francisco. Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 boards at BC, is the best of the bunch on paper, but he lacks explosiveness and is coming off of a redshirt season. He’s the x-factor in this equation.
13. Iowa State (Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Simeon Carter)
Niang is the single-toughest cover in all of college basketball. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he’s so skilled: he can beat you in the post, he can beat you to the rim from the perimeter, he can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble. He’s a stud. McKay is the perfect compliment, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. But after those two, there really isn’t much of note in ISU’s front court.
Simmons is going to be must-see TV every time he plays as a freshman. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward with handle, an innate passing ability and a flair for making highlight reel plays. He’ll notch multiple triple-doubles this season. But where is his front court support? Craig Victor is the most talented of the bunch, but left Arizona because he couldn’t crack the rotation.
15. San Diego State (Malik Pope, Skylar Spencer, Zylan Cheatham, Angelo Chol)
This ranking is based on the assumption that Malik Pope lives up to his potential. He’s got the talent of a lottery pick and the consistentcy — and the health — of a four-year Mountain West big man. Spencer is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, Chol is an above-average high major big man and Cheatham has plenty of promise, but if Pope doesn’t play his way into being a first round pick, this rank will look silly in March.
Others considered: Texas A&M, Cal, Marquette, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Duke