The Pittsburgh Pythons clearly made a mistake when they passed up a 10-year-old Sean Miller, in the 1979 Cult Classic “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh”. At an imposing 4-foot-11 inches, Miller was a dribbling prodigy. The Pythons GM should have known that anyone who could dribble three basketballs at once was destined for greatness, right?
While young Sean wasn’t built to play alongside Dr. Julius Erving in 1979, a fully-grown 45-year-old Sean Miller has proven that he may just have the right recipe for constructing a Arizona Basketball dynasty. In his fifth season as Arizona’s head coach, Miller has the #1 ranked Wildcats on a roll at 20-0, the best season start since Arizona won the NCAA championship in 1997 under maestro Lute Olson. Since signing a 5-year $11-million deal in 2009, Miller has lead Arizona to an impressive 116-43, the best record amongst Wildcat coaches in their first five seasons.
Sean Miller’s defensive minded strategy, paired with his stellar success as a recruiter, has made Arizona basketball into a contender once again. Just in case you haven’t turned on your TV this college basketball season, here are a few reasons why the University of Arizona has the best basketball program in the country right now.
Starting Point Guard, T.J. McConnell has been the team’s catalyst for strong perimeter defensive play, leading the Wildcats with almost two steals a game. After deciding to transfer from Duquesne in 2012, the pass-first point guard spent all of last season practicing with the team, generating a special chemistry that has carried over into his first eligible season. Currently averaging six assists a game, McConnell has a high basketball IQ and understands how to run an offense, making him the perfect fit for Sean Miller’s system.
Junior Shooting guard Nick Johnson has made incredible strides this year, becoming the Wildcats leading scorer. Johnson started his career at Arizona as a passive and inconsistent offensive player, shooting a dismal 37% from the field. This season, Johnson is scoring the rock more than ever and making almost 50% of his shots. Not only has he become the Cats go-to-guy, but he is also a striking defensive threat despite being undersized for his position. Aside from his all-around play, Johnson’s leadership as an older member of the team has been vital to the team’s success. Depending on how well Johnson and the Wildcats perform in the tournament, there is a chance that he climbs NBA teams’ draft boards, as he is quite the athletic specimen.
Sophomore guard Gabe York has given the wildcats a viable scoring and playmaking option coming off the bench. While York’s role isn’t as important as McConnell or Johnson, he plays well within the teams’ overall system. As of recently, York has been making progress towards becoming more of a team player, notching 11 assists in the past six games while coming off the bench.
The Front Four
Aaron Gordon, the typical one-and-done freshman, brings an Indy 500 type motor to the table that cannot be described by a simple box score. He is a surefire first-round draft pick with freakish athletic abilities and an immense potential upside. While Gordon’s offensive game has room for improvement, he has shown that he can score, pass, rebound and defend competitively at the college level. More importantly, he is an unselfish player that knows what he has to do for the Wildcats to win. Aside from being a horrendous free throw shooter, 46% from the line, “Flash” Gordon is the most complete player on the Wildcats.
Brandon Ashley is another player that is likely to get drafted if he decides to leave after this season. Ashley is a long stretch-four who uses his 7 foot 3 inch wingspan to rise over defenders for easy shots in the paint. His length makes him an effective rebounder and interior defender. Ashley also features a silky jump shot that reaches all the way out to the three-point line. The sophomore forward plays a vital role in Sean Miller’s offense as he is usually depended for around ten shots a game. Once Ashley develops his post moves, he will be hard to contain at the college level.
Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski is an extremely raw talent who will keep making progress as a center as he continues to grow into his body. At 235 pounds, Kaleb is a reliable defensive anchor in the middle. Despite often having issues catching the ball cleanly down low, Tarczewski has become an efficient post option as he has capitalized on almost 60% of his shot attempts. He has also been a valuable asset at the charity stripe, netting 77% of his free throws. As a player with a high ceiling and NBA body, Tarczewski may become a viable second round option for many NBA teams.
The final piece to Sean Miller’s puzzle is freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a player who can come off the bench and contribute in a variety of ways because of his relentless demeanor. Jefferson is another player with a lot of untapped potential. While Rondae is a long athletic defender and penetrator, he lacks a complete offensive skill set. If Jefferson had a jump shot, we would see his name along side players like Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Emblid, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle as a definite first round draft pick. With his strong build and 7-foot-1 inch wingspan, Jefferson is able to guard just about any position on the court. As a versatile high-energy player, Jefferson is a guy that Arizona hopes will stick around for another year and develop into a superstar.
Ultimately, the ability of these seven players to play unselfishly and within the means of Sean Miller’s system is the reason for Arizona’s success so far this season.
With the possibility of five of these seven players being selected in the next NBA draft, Sean Miller has dove into the recruiting trail head first in order to sustain excellence in Tucson. Miller looks to fill Arizona’s possible voids with four of the country’s top recruits this year. Forward Stanley Johnson looks to be a replacement for Aaron Gordon, as some think he may even have more upside. Four-star recruits Craig Victor, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen will also have opportunities to contribute immediately. Miller has already started his recruiting brigade for the class of 2015, landing top ten guard Tyler Dorsey. With Arizona’s current success, it can be expected that Dorsey is the first of many top high school prospects to be signed by Sean Miller for the 2015 class.