Five key questions as Arizona prepares for the season ahead
TUCSON -- Sean Miller stood at center court of the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium with his players seated in a circle around him. Practice had just ended and Miller, Arizona's fifth-year coach, was conducting a teaching moment in a season that promises to be full of them. "The most refreshing thing I'm seeing right now is the attitudes of the guys who weren't here last year," he said. "We want to be collectively better than the talent we have. There's only one national championship team in Arizona history, but I've got news for you: That was about the 15th-most talented team in Arizona history."
In that brief address, Miller touched on all the keywords for his team's 2013-14 season: Talented. Attitude. Refreshing. Most of all, history. These Wildcats clearly have the pieces to put together a memorable season, but first they have a long road to travel. That's why they stand to benefit especially from the new rule that allowed schools to start practicing the last week of September, two weeks earlier than before. For all the potential these Wildcats possess -- they were tabbed the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 and are ranked No. 5 in the preseason coaches' poll -- there are still many unknowns. Arizona lost three of its top four scorers from last season's 27-8 Sweet 16 team, and there is only one senior on the roster (backup guard Jordin Mayes). The team's main strength is its corps of big, athletic players who can pressure the ball all over the court. The primary concerns are outside shooting and experience.
In short, you can expect Arizona to stumble out of the gate before cruising at high speed as it approaches the finish line. That's why the extra two weeks came in handy. "For so many of our guys, everything is new," Miller said. "Every drill is new. The pace of practice is new. They're getting used to their environment. It's nice to get an early start, but there's a fine line. You want to take advantage of the extra time without having your team get to February and feel like they've been practicing for four years."
It speaks volumes about the state of this program that it could lose three of its top four scorers and still be projected to be better. That is largely a tribute to the arrival of 6-foot-8 freshman Aaron Gordon, a versatile, freakishly athletic forward who has a mind for the game and a nose for the basket. Gordon is by far the most heralded freshman Miller has ever recruited. (Remember that two years before he was the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, Derrick Williams was a last-minute addition who had just decommitted from USC.) Gordon has not received quite the hype that some of the nation's other freshmen who landed at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, but he could very well end up being the class of the class. After being named MVP of the McDonald's All-American game, Gordon, a native of San Jose, Calif., went on to be MVP of the Under 19 World Championships in Prague, even though he was the youngest member of Team USA.
Gordon is that rare elite talent whose intangibles are even better than his tangibles. He's so good that two of Arizona's incumbent bigs decided it would be easier to leave than to fight him for minutes. Grant Jerrett, a 6-10 freshman forward, entered the NBA draft, where he was selected 40th by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sophomore forward Angelo Chol transferred to San Diego State.
Gordon will be joined up front by two sophomores who were starters last season: 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley and 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski. They will form one of the pre-eminent frontcourts in college basketball. So Miller had much reason to like what he saw in that circle around him at midcourt. Whether Arizona ends up making history will depend on how well it answers the key questions it faces as the season gets underway. Here are the five biggest:
While it would be silly to pigeonhole Gordon with a single position, at some point Miller is going to have to make some decisions as to how best to deploy his child prodigy. The answer will mostly depend on what kind of defensive strategy Miller wants to use. If he wants to go big, he can play Gordon on the wing. If he wants to go small, he can move Gordon to the post. The key will be to make sure Gordon can use all of his skills without gumming up the works. This may be a happy problem, but it is a problem. We know the Wildcats are going to be good. Gordon gives them their best chance to be great.
The 6-1 junior point guard is a great example of why so many coaches are wrong when they rail against the rapid increase in transfers. McConnell was a solid player during his first two years at Duquesne, but he took a risk and announced his intention to leave because he wanted to seek better competition. To his delight, he was courted by Purdue and Virginia before he settled on Arizona. It's the American dream, in high tops. "I just wanted to play on a bigger stage," McConnell said. "Knowing the talent that was here, that was the deal breaker for me."
McConnell is an Aaron Craft-type ball hawk who will immediately bolster Arizona's perimeter defense. (The Cats need it after allowing opponents to make 37.7 percent from three-point range last season.) He was ranked in the top five nationally in steals in each of his first two seasons. And as the first traditional, pass-first point guard that Miller has brought to Tucson, McConnell provides a welcome contrast from the graduated Mark Lyons, who led the team in scoring last season but barely managed a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
McConnell wanted a bigger stage. Well, he got it. If he can keep his poise under the bright lights, then that will bode well for Arizona's chances to make a deep run in the tournament.
Notice I didn't ask whether Arizona can score. With their defensive pressure, size and speed, the Wildcats will be able put up points in spurts. The question is whether they will be able to knock down perimeter shots in their half-court offense during the last four minutes of a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight game. That is the characteristic that can define a team's season.
The starting guards, McConnell and 6-3 junior Nick Johnson, may be efficient three-point shooters (they made 39 percent and 43 percent, respectively, in their most recent seasons), but they are not the type of ankle breakers who can get buckets when nothing is working and the shot clock is winding down. That leaves three possibilities off the bench: 6-3 senior Jordin Mayes, 6-2 sophomore Gabe York and 6-5 freshman Elliott Pitts. If one of those guys can step up and make threes, he has a chance to earn some serious minutes. If none does that, then Zona is going to have problems.
Given the aforementioned question about outside shooting, the Wildcats will see plenty of zones again this season. Their effectiveness will hinge on whether they can stick to their script. "We have to keep our identity against the zone," Miller said. "We can't all of a sudden start shooting threes. We have to play to our strengths."
That means feeding Ashley and Tarczewski time and again. Ashley in particular looked during practice like he has improved his shooting range. It's not hard to envision him operating in the high post, and he can keep defenses honest from three once in a while. Beating a zone isn't all that hard, but it requires patience and the ability to penetrate via the dribble or pass. Whatever the game plan is, Arizona is going to have plenty of opportunities to use it -- until, that is, the Wildcats prove they can beat a zone.
I've attended lots of college basketball practices during my two decades on the beat, but I don't know that I've ever seen a quieter practice than the one I witnessed in Tucson. The only voice I heard through the entire workout was Miller's. I didn't witness a single instance of a player barking out instructions, encouragement or a criticism toward a teammate. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I think this could be a huge problem, especially given the way last year's team had strong personalities like Lyons and Solomon Hill to take charge.
When I mentioned this to Miller after practice was over, he conceded my point. "It's probably a little bit of our personality," he said. "I'll say this -- I might do a poor job of promoting that. Even some of the teams that I've coached that have performed at a high level, I don't know that any of them have been great talking teams."
Miller has lots of options, but that doesn't mean he's going to play lots of guys. Look for him to shave his rotation to seven players, eight tops, early in the season and stick with it. "If I could do last year over again, I would have played one less guy," he told me. "Because what ends up happening is in our quest to make more people happy, you lose a little bit of role development and chemistry, and you're still not making people happy. I thought as we got deep into the tournament, that's something that hurt us."
Arizona will be an entertaining team this season. And believe me, Aaron Gordon is the truth. Even though I saw him play several times as a high schooler with the Oakland Soldiers, I was amazed at how much better he has gotten. That tells me he will continue to make strides as the season progresses. Still, when you get to the later rounds of the NCAA tournament, it is crucial to have guards who can make something out of nothing in a half-court offense, and I am not convinced Arizona has that. I see the Wildcats winning the Pac-12, earning a high seed and reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Anything beyond that is gravy.