Arizona Basketball Poised For Another Shot At Greatness
Sean Miller has had Arizona basketball knocking on the door of big things during his five first years in Tucson. The Wildcats have won a pair of Pac-12 titles and lost tough games in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments in either the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. Arizona is positioned for another big run this year and they’ll be national TV twice in three days—tonight at Washington (9 PM ET, ESPN) and Sunday at Washington State (6:30, FoxSports1).
The Wildcats are 20-3 overall, tied with Utah atop the Pac-12 standings and projected as a #2 seed in the NCAAs by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. They have a deep and talented frontcourt and a skilled playmaker that suggests the talent is there to be the team that can knock off undefeated Kentucky come March.
Stanley Johnson, a likely one-and-done at forward is the key, going 6’7” and averaging 15 points/7 rebounds a night. Brandon Ashley, a 6’9” junior provides more athleticism in the paint, with an 11/5 average. The same goes for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (11/6) and then there’s big 7’0” Kaleb Tarczewski, who anchors the middle.
Miller, a former point guard himself in his playing days for good Pitt teams in the late 1980s, has his own senior quarterback in T.J. McConnell, a quality playmaker with six assists per game and chipping in ten points per game.
What Arizona lacks is a steady three-point shooter. To the credit of this team, they don’t force up a lot of threes and settle for doing their damage inside the arc. But in a one-game shot against potential NCAA foes like Gonzaga, or Wisconsin (who nipped the ‘Cats in an overtime regional final last year) that have size inside and good perimeter shooting, it could be what does them in.
The Wildcats make up for their perimeter shortcomings with defense, and a lot of it. It’s what drove them to a Pac-12 title, #1 seed and three tournament victories a year ago, and it’s what’s driving them again this year. Miller’s team ranks seventh in the nation in defensive efficiency.
It’s for these reasons—the defensive excellence, the ability to play to their strengths offensively and the quality and depth of the frontcourt that I consider Arizona to be the best challenger to Kentucky.
The question mark is this—given that just yesterday I panned Gonzaga for not having made a big NCAA run recently and for a schedule that makes it tough to have confidence in them, why does Arizona get a pass? After all, the Wildcats haven’t made the Final Four since their runner-up year in 2001 under the great Lute Olson.
And the Pac-12 only has five serious NCAA Tournament contenders right now, with UCLA, Stanford and Oregon all on the bubble (Lunardi projects the first two to make it). Maybe Oregon State, at 16-8 overall could get in the conversation, but even so, no one is going to confuse the Pac-12 with the ACC.
Arizona does have some decent non-conference wins—they edged Kansas State and San Diego State, both of whom look NCAA-bound back in November and they beat Gonzaga in overtime at home. Ultimately though, my belief in the Wildcats is predicated on more than that.
While Miller hasn’t had the breakthrough in March, his teams have made significant advances into the NCAA Tournament and their losses have been tough ones to very good teams. In 2011, after crushing Duke in the Sweet 16, Arizona only lost by two to Kemba Walker’s UConn team that won the national title. In 2013, Arizona only lost by three to an Ohio State team that was on a roll off a victory in the Big Ten tournament. And last year’s loss to Wisconsin came against the best team in the Big Ten.
That’s why I think it all adds up to this being Arizona’s year. As of now, I’d slot them #2 behind Kentucky on my list of potential teams to pick for winning the national championship. And if there’s an all-Wildcats showdown in Indianapolis come April? Well, Arizona fans have fond memories of that—it’s Kentucky that Lute Olson’s team vanquished in 1997 to win the program’s only national title.