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. We continue our countdown today with No. 2 Arizona.
Head Coach: Sean Miller
Last Season: 33-5, 15-3 Pac-12 (1st), lost to Wisconsin in the Elite 8
Key Losses: Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon
Newcomers: Stanley Johnson, Kadeem Allen, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Dusan Ristic, Craig Victor
– G: T.J. McConnell, Sr.
– F: Stanley Johnson, Fr.
– F: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, So.
– F: Brandon Ashley, Jr.
– C: Kaleb Tarczewski, Jr.
– Bench: Gabe York, Jr.; Kadeem Allen, Jr.; Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Fr.; Dusan Ristic, Fr.; Craig Victor, Fr.
They’ll be good because … : Finding a way to consistently score against this team is going to be an absolute nightmare, which is crazy to think about considering that the Wildcats lost two of the nation’s best individual defenders in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. That should tell you a thing or two about the way that Sean Miller has been able to recruit in recent years, but it also should give you an idea of just how strong the program is that he’s building. What I love about this group, particularly on the defensive end, is the pair of wings that they have — Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. I’d be comfortable having either of those guys matched with any player in the country save for maybe the five or ten best big men in the country. That’s how tough and versatile they are on that end of the floor.
What that does is allow Miller to tinker around with his lineups. If he wants to go big, he can play Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski together along the front line, allowing Arizona to match up with the massive front lines of Kentucky and Texas. But if they want to spread the floor, they can bring on Gabe York or Kadeem Allen alongside T.J. McConnell in the back court, lining Ashley up with Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson up front.
To put it simply, Miller will be able to matchup with any team in the country — whether they play three bigs or four guards — and still have a size advantage and, in all likelihood, more talent without taking a hit defensively. That’s nice.
But they might disappoint because … : If there’s a concern about this Arizona team, it’s going to be their perimeter shooting. It was an issue last season as well, and that was with Nick Johnson, who was the team’s best and most clutch perimeter shooter. McConnell can knock down a three with time and space, and getting Ashley back from the torn ligament in his foot will be huge because of his ability to spread the floor.
But here’s the concern: Johnson is a good, not great, perimeter shooter and Hollis-Jefferson was the kind of guy you didn’t bother guarding beyond 10 feet. York can be a lights-out shooter from deep, but he’s streaky and a concern on the defensive end of the floor. Allen, a JuCo transfer, has a reputation for being a big time scorer, but he’s more of a slasher than a spot-up shooter.
One other thing that might become an issue: Arizona doesn’t really have a go-to guy offensively. I think Johnson is terrific, and he’s certainly a better offensive player than Aaron Gordon was, but I’ll be curious to see how he transitions on that end of the floor to the college level. What makes Johnson so special is his versatility and the fact that there really isn’t anything on the basketball court that he struggles with. I’m not convinced he’s a great one-on-one scorer.
Outlook: It would be a shock to me if anyone other than Arizona won the Pac-12 this season. That’s how good this Arizona team is when compared to the rest of the teams in the conference. They’ll drop a couple of games here and there in league play, but I would not be surprised to see the Wildcats win the conference by four games when it is all said and done.
On paper, Kentucky is the best team in the country. They’re deep, they’re talented and they have a ton of guys that will be playing for NBA paychecks in the not-so-distant future. It’s correct to say that Kentucky is the odds-on favorite to win the national title, but Arizona is not all that far behind them. If we know anything about a team coached by Miller, it’s that they are going to be tough as nails, particularly on the defensive end, and they are going to execute offensively.
Assuming everyone stays healthy, Miller should get this team to the Final Four this season.