With the 2013-14 college basketball season just a few weeks away, the time is now for Arizona basketball.
Entering the fifth season of the Sean Miller era in Tucson, the Wildcats have finally assembled what many in both local and national sectors consider a legitimate national championship contender. Headlined by arguably Miller’s best recruiting class since moving to the desert, the Wildcats will look to blend both playmaking youth and veteran savvy to deliver a championship to a fan base that had been spoiled with success during the tenure of Lute Olson.
Upon first glance, Arizona has all the pieces necessary to make the jump from recent year’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 runs and finally break through and join the Final 4 party, held this year in Arlington. But in order to reach expectations, the ‘Cats will need significant contributions from a handful of new faces. Allow us to take a closer look at this year’s team below (Only expected rotation players are covered).
F Aaron Gordon – The golden goose of this year’s recruiting class, AG comes with as much hype of any player I can ever remember coming through Arizona. Most of the hype is warranted, as he is a relentless rebounder and athletic freak capable of changing the game on both ends of the floor.
His athleticism was on full display during the annual Red/Blue game, where he both won the dunk contest and delivered impressive plays during the actual scrimmage portion. His only drawback, and I think this can be said for a few players on this year’s team, is his shooting ability.
I would personally grade him as a below average shooter, and his free throw stroke looked choppy at times during the scrimmage, but he will more than make up for this in other facets of his game. My favorite thing I saw about Gordon during the scrimmage was his ability to clean the glass defensively and start the fastbreak himself. In transition he was able to create easy opportunities for both himself and for teammates, something that will be CRITICAL for this year’s team due to the outside shooting they lost from last season.
F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – For as much hype as AG gets, RHJ is actually the freshman I am looking forward to watching the most. By all accounts, this kid is an absolute winner and the exact kind of player that Miller thrived with during his time at Xavier. A rangy, athletic wing who can both play and defend multiple spots (exceptionally well at that), RHJ is the type of player who i would like to see stick around for 3+ years.
As with Gordon, his jumpshot is is shaky at times, but his innate ability to make the right basketball play is something you cannot teach. Pair this with Gordon, Nick, Johnson and TJ McConnell (both of whom will be covered later), and at most times you will have 3-4 players capable of handling the ball and making winning plays every trip down. I expect RHJ to be the team’s “lockdown” defender, freeing up Johnson to focus more on the offensive end, which will hopefully keep him fresher down the stretch.
G TJ McConnell – A true grinder. A true PG. And most importantly, a true winner.
McConnell’s bulldog intensity is the attribute I am most thankful for. The losses of Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons gutted the team of a great deal of its veteran leadership, but McConnell’s steady presence and ability to enhance the games of those around him is immeasurable. He is also a gritty defender and will help ease the load (again) on Johnson.
During the Red/Blue scrimmage, McConnell was hesitant in looking for his shot, something he may be forced to do as the season wears on because of the attention his teammates will garner. He is a capable 3-point shooter and will need to knock down open looks to keep defenses honest and ease the pressure on Arizona’s young, talented big men.
G Elliott Pitts – Pitts has fallen through the cracks so to speak because of the hysteria that came with the Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson signings. Miller has also been quoted saying that Pitts needs to gain strength in order to contribute on a regular basis in ’13-14. But if there is one defining trait Pitts brings to the table it is the ability to shoot the three ball.
Flashing a fluid stroke (although it was off) during the Red/Blue game, it would not surprise me to see Pitts play small doses of minutes if returners Jordin Mayes and Gabe York (covered later) struggle shooting the ball. Pitts also surprised me (when he was in) with his ability to have a hand in quite a few plays on both sides of the floor. He does look small in comparison to the rest of the team, but there are not many teams in the nation that can match up physically to Arizona.
F Zach Peters – Due to medical reasons, Peters skipped the preseason scrimmage and therefore did not give fans a preview of what he offers. But at 6-10, and with the ability to shoot the ball a little bit, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Peters pick up some backup big man minutes and spell both Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski (both covered later).
F Matt Korcheck – A local Tucson boy, Korcheck reminds me a lot of Angelo Chol in the style he plays. A physical banger at 6-10, 230, Korcheck can provide some solid minutes off the bench and give Arizona an able body to help wear down some of the low-post scoring options in the Pac 12. Korcheck also looks very athletic for his size (much like Chol was), and if nothing else can provide a very nice change of pace on defense and on the boards.
G Nick Johnson – The straw that stirs the drink. It has been no secret the past two years that even though Johnson was never the “star” of the team, when he played well, the ‘Cats played well. The reason for this is because his basketball IQ and intangibles are off the charts.
A true stat-sheet stuffer, Johnson will need to be more assertive on the offensive end this season. He will also need to continue to knock down the outside shot with regularity to keep defenses honest, because when he isn’t shooting well he seems to lose confidence and becomes timid.
The additions of AG, RHJ and McConnell will help Johnson on the defensive end and allow him to stay fresher for the offensive end, which will help curtail some of the streakiness that has plagued Johnson over his first two years. Without a doubt, Johnson is the leader of this team and I look for him to have a monster year, if not in terms of scoring and stats but in terms of having his hands all over each game on both ends of the floor.
F Brandon Ashley – The most impressive player at the Red/Blue game for me. In a game marred by sloppy play and almost nonexistent offense (part of which was due to Arizona’s outstanding defensive length), Ashley got to the rim and scored at will.
A polished scorer both in the paint and out to about 18 feet (he did hit a 3, but I will need to see more), Ashley is a matchup nightmare for most big men. For me, he is the go-to scorer on this team, and he should be able to get 15-18 a game with ease. Solid FT shooter. Needs to improve on the defensive end, as last year he was often benched in crunch time for more capable defenders and rebounders. But he will fit in better this year with Zeus, AG and RHJ all being better defenders than the components of last years squad.
C Kaleb Tarczewski – Most impressive body on the team. Last year, and probably to be expected, Zeus looked like a freshman big man in terms of his movements being plodding and unathletic (small stretch) at times. At times he seemed overwhelmed with the speed of the game. However, this year he is by far in the best shape I have ever seen him.
At 7-0, 235, Zeus looked quicker and more agile than at any point last year. Down the stretch last year he was playing the best basketball of his season and was a huge reason for Arizona’s Sweet 16 run. I look for Zeus to build on last year’s success and use his new body to dominate on both ends, especially on the defensive end where he will be able to both challenge and alter more shots this year without losing defensive position. Big year coming for this guy.
G Gabe York – Along with the next guy, I think he will be an X-factor to this year’s team. The losses of Hill, Parrom and Lyons not only stripped the team of three leaders but also of three very good three point shooters.
Fans in Tucson screamed for York to be freed last year, only to see a timid version once he was actually given some run. This year, however, with bullies Ashley and Zeus in the paint and a true PG to set him up, I expect York to contribute to the tune of 6-8 PPG all of which would be huge coming off the bench.
During the Red/Blue game he missed about 4-5 open three balls that you have to figure he can hit during the year (they were wide open). Any points York can contribute are a bonus for this team, and the better he plays, the harder the ‘Cats will be to beat.
G Jordin Mayes – Mayes was much maligned for his play at times last year, often times turning the ball over and looking downright awful shooting the ball leaving fans wondering what happened to the Mayes of his freshman year. But fear not ‘Cats fans, it is not time to give up on this guy.
A solid, if not spectacular, ball-handler, Mayes will provide valuable minutes backing up McConnell and Johnson and he MUST hit open shots to continue to keep the floor spaced. A decent defender as well, Mayes is the perfect backup in terms of shooting and ball handling ability to complement the pieces of this year’s team. He just has to relax and do his thing.
In today’s college basketball game it is very rare for a team to be able to bring in this type of a recruiting class and pair it with a core of returning players and have them integrate seamlessly, but that is exactly what I expect to happen for Arizona this year.
The newcomers bring the basketball IQ and intangibles that are necessary to contribute in other ways than scoring, and the leadership abilities of McConnell and Johnson should be able to keep everybody happy regardless of the role they are playing.
With very good guards, very athletic wings, and big men that could arguably be the best in the nation, Sean Miller has all the weapons necessary to wage all-out war on not only a PAC12 but a national scale, and because of this I honestly see Arizona playing in Arlington in late March at the Final Four.