Three Questions: Will Arizona contend for a title this season?
- The Wildcats need to figure out their perimeter rotation and fill a big gap in the frontcourt if they want to break through to the Final Four for the first time in Sean Miller's tenure.
What will the perimeter rotation look like?
Three off-season departures make this question a little bit easier to answer. First, guards Justin Simon and Elliott Pitts transferred away from the program. Then Terrance Ferguson, a five-star prospect in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, decided to play professionally in Australia (and reportedly sign a deal with Under Armour) instead of enrolling at Arizona. That leaves senior guard Kadeem Allen, junior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, sophomore guard Allonzo Trier and incoming recruits Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins. Coach Sean Miller will have a lot of shooting and playmaking to work with. The challenge is deploying it in a way that enables Arizona to approximate, if not recapture, the form that made it the Pac-12’s most efficient offensive and defensive squad in 2014–15.
Trier, who opted against entering the NBA draft after missing seven games with a hand injury last season, is a reliable off-dribble creator who should see his possession load increase with veteran Gabe York out of the picture, Allen provides the Wildcats a strong defensive presence and both Alkins and Simmons will be able to make big impacts right away. Few teams across the country will be able to match this group’s combination of talent and depth. It’s on Miller to make all the pieces fit.
Who fills out the frontcourt?
Whereas Arizona will look to two highly regarded prospects (Alkins and Simmons) to supplement an established scorer (Trier) in its backcourt, the composition of the Wildcats’ frontcourt is less clear. Post-bound brute Kaleb Tarczewski is gone, along with glass-cleaning power forward Ryan Anderson and stretch four Mark Tollefsen, all of whom ranked among Arizona’s top five in percentage of minutes played during conference play last season, according to Kenpom.com. Junior Dusan Ristic and sophomore Chance Comanche should see their on-court time rise, but there’s more intrigue surrounding two players who have yet to suit up for the Wildcats.
Finnish import Lauri Markkanen, a five-star prospect in the class of 2016, can space the floor with his three-point shooting, and Scout.com notes that he “moves fluidly, is a good, not great, athlete and is versatile.” Markkanen already projects as a lottery pick in the 2017 draft, but he should excel under Miller for at least one season. Then there’s Ray Smith, a five-star prospect in the class of 2015 who sat out last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee (after previously tearing the same ligament in his left knee). Smith is a 6' 8" wing, but he potentially could be used in the frontcourt given Arizona’s depth at other positions. Smith—whom CBS reported would be cleared for “everything except contact” by August—is an effective basket-attacker and can guard both forward spots.
Is Arizona a national title contender?
We’re only a few months removed from watching Arizona get run off the floor—with Miller having sweated through his shirt—in a first-round NCAA tournament game against Wichita State. How can it be that the Wildcats now belong in the championship discussion? The combination of returning talent, an influx of gifted freshmen and a coach with a strong track record makes them an interesting darkhorse pick. If Trier can maintain or increase his scoring efficiency while upping his shot volume, Smith is back to full speed after rehabbing his injury, Markkanen makes good on his floor-spreading potential, Alkins and Simmons offer enough auxiliary shot-creation and facilitation to stress defenses, and Miller gets his guys to guard like they did two years ago, this team could be really good.
Duke feels like a pretty clear No. 1, and Villanova, Kentucky and Kansas should all factor into the title picture. Yet Arizona could challenge Oregon—which brings back wing Dillon Brooks, guard Tyler Dorsey and big man Chris Boucher from last year’s 31-win, league championship-sweeping squad—as the best team in the Pac-12. The Wildcats may not match up favorably with the teams Miller led to the Elite Eight in 2014 and 2015, but it’s not crazy to think this outfit could break through to the national semifinals.