Arizona Wildcats embracing favorite role

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Since the days when Lute Olson roamed the sideline, high expectations have followed Arizona into the basketball season. Saying the Wildcats will have a good team has become like proclaiming the summer will be hot in the desert.

But this year is going to be even hotter. Not the summer, the expectations.

With a core group of returning players, forward Brandon Ashley back from a broken foot and another star freshman in the mix, the Wildcats are being picked as national-title contenders - and they like it.

''I think we embrace those expectations,'' Arizona coach Sean Miller said. ''To run from it is foolish. To not act as if, `Hey, you know what, it's been a while since we've been in a Final Four and that's OK,' it's not OK. We're trying to get to a Final Four. We know where we're at, and that's the fun part of coaching here and playing here. It's a big stage with a lot of expectations. It brings out the best in you.''

Since taking over the program in 2009, Miller has carried on the winning tradition Olson established in his 24 years as coach. Except for an NIT hiccup in 2010, the Wildcats have made regular deep runs in the NCAA tournament.

Arizona reached the second week of the tournament four times and has twice been within a few seconds of reaching the Final Four. One of those just-missed-it seasons was last season, when the Wildcats reached the regional final despite playing the final 16 games of the season without Ashley.

A couple of key players from that team are gone; Nick Johnson, Arizona's undisputed leader last season, and fabulous freshman Aaron Gordon both left early for the NBA.

Even so, the Wildcats have plenty of talent coming back, including point guard T.J. McConnell, center Kaleb Tarczewski, forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and guard Gabe York.

They'll also get Ashley back and have added another in what seems to be an endless line of strong recruiting classes by Miller, one that includes a star-in-the-making, forward Stanley Johnson, forward Craig Victor, point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and junior college transfer Kadeem Allen.

Put that all together and it's no wonder the Wildcats are being projected for a deep March run this season.

''You can't not embrace it,'' Ashley said. ''With the No. 1 on your back, it also puts a target on your back. Everybody is going to be looking to knock you off. You have to certainly embrace that and acknowledge it, but you have to take the challenge as well. With such a high statement of how talented our team is, you have to embrace that.''

Ashley will be a main cog in Arizona's success.

A versatile 6-foot-8 forward, he causes matchup problems for opponents at both ends of the floor. Offensively, he can shoot from the perimeter or take it down low, and defensively he's both a shot blocker and someone who can keep up with guards, if need be.

Arizona has been cautious with Ashley's return and Miller said he will likely get extra days off the first couple months of the season, but he's expected to be fully healthy and have a huge impact on the Wildcats.

''I'm looking forward to getting out there and proving myself again,'' Ashley said.

The other difference-maker could be Johnson.

Gordon was a highly touted recruit last season and lived up to expectations.

Johnson has a chance to slide seamlessly into his spot.

Like Gordon, he's exceptionally athletic and is not the typical skinny freshman, a sturdy 245 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame. Johnson also is a tireless worker with a strong competitive streak, just like Gordon, and may be a better perimeter shooter.

''You put a big guy on him, he's going to go right around you. If you put a smaller guy on him, he's going to post you up,'' McConnell said. ''I'm going to say it's going to be pretty hard to scout Stanley Johnson.''

Opponents will likely be saying the same thing about his team, too.