The Arizona Wildcats are now 9-0 and ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll and No. 5 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. The Coaches Poll has them behind a 1-loss Louisville team, which got me to thinking— “Are the Wildcats really this good or are they just using smoke and mirrors?”
Arizona coach Sean Miller is in his fourth season at the University of Arizona and ushers in his highest ranking at the helm. This is also the first time that the Wildcats have been in the top five in both polls since Jan. 5, 2004 when they finished the season 20-10 and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Does this year’s team have what it takes to go deep into the NCAA Tournament or will they nosedive much like the 2003-04 team that went on to a dismal 11-9 in Pac-10 Conference play?
I will break it all down with reasons that this team is different than that squad and attempt to predict the future—much like the Mayans did oh, so many years ago.
Miller is in his ninth season as a head coach and his twentieth as a college basketball coach. He was a point guard at Pitt and went on to coach at Miami of Ohio, Pittsburgh and North Carolina State as an assistant before he went on to become associate head coach at Xavier.
After three years of coaching under Thad Matta, Miller was rewarded with the head coaching position when Matta left for Ohio State. Miller turned a 17-12 team into a team that won three consecutive regular season Atlantic Ten championships and four NCAA Tournament appearances in his five years including a Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight appearance. He was also named the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year after his 30-win season in 2008.
He did much the same when he came to Arizona, turning a 16-15 team into a 30-win team that won the Pac-10 regular season and reached the Elite Eight. His 17-0 record at home in addition to the 30 wins and deep tournament run were enough to earn him the John Wooden Pac-10 Coach of the Year award in 2011.
After a disappointing 2011-12 season, Miller vowed to make good on his promise to return Arizona basketball to its previous heights and recruited like no other. He garnered the No. 1 recruiting class with three players in the top nine on the ESPNU 100.
Sean Miller knows basketball; since becoming a head coach, six of his eight teams have been to the postseason and nine of his 11 seasons as an assistant ended in the postseason.
Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson
This backcourt is sick.
The teams two leading scorers are both averaging over 13 points and three assists per game and are anchors to the leading scoring team in the Pac-12 Conference.
Senior transfer Mark Lyons has been money from the field hitting just under 50 percent including 42 percent from three-point territory.
Where Lyons shines, Johnson burns with the light of a thousand stars. He leads the team in steals with and assists. His 27 total steals and average of three per game is second in the conference and his average of 3.6 assists per game rank seventh in the conference.
The backcourt of the 2003-2004 team—Mustafa Shakur and Salim Stoudamire.
7′ center Kaleb Tarczewski has started all nine games this year at center and averages 22 minutes per contest. He is a monster underneath the boards and averages 5.6 rebounds per game and has tallied nine blocks.
The shining star of the class is Brandon Ashley, who has started the last seven games in replacement of fellow frosh Grant Jerrett. Ashley leads the team in rebounds and blocks and field goal percentage, hitting 60 percent of his shots.
Highly touted forward Grant Jerrett started the first two games and has since taken a back seat to Ashley. Jerrett averages just over 17 minutes per games and had a breakout performance Tuesday night against Oral Roberts. He finished with a season-high 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting including a perfect 3-of-3 from downtown.
Guards Gabe York and Jacob Hazzard have played sparingly with York averaging 6.7 minutes per games and Hazzard at two.
Seniors Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom are true leaders on and off the bench. Hill has started all nine games this year and Parrom has been the prototypical sixth man.
Hill is the do-it-all player for the Arizona Wildcats, second on the team in assists and steals while placing third in scoring and rebounds. Additionally, he places in the top 10 in the conference in assists and steals. He reached his career-best in both categories last Tuesday versus Oral Roberts and will continue building this year.
Parrom is the glue that holds the team together, averaging over 20 minutes per contest and leading the team in free-throw percentage. The swingman subs in whenever and wherever he is needed. He averages eight points per game, just under five rebounds and 2.3 assists per contest.
This team is good and is only going to get better. With the signing of two top-notch recruits in Rondae Jefferson and Elliott Pitts to go along with transfer students T.J. McConnell and Matt Korcheck, they could be unstoppable next year.
There is no single superstar on the team, yet they are in the top 15 in field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and three-point percentage. This tells me that as a team, they are dead-on and don’t take many bad shots.
They are 25th in the league in scoring and 26th in assists, so it is also evident that they are passing the ball around a lot and scoring even more.
These are all signs of a quality team that has a strength-of-schedule ranking of 38 and has only played two teams in the RPI Top 100. They are currently ranked No. 8 on the RPI Index with a .6817 percentage.
Pac-12 foe Colorado, although unranked at 8-2, comes in at No. 2 on the RPI Index with a .7021 percentage and the fifth-hardest strength-of-schedule, playing six teams in the RPI Top 100.
As we all know, Colorado defeated Arizona in the inaugural Pac-12 Conference Tournament earlier this year and the two will face off in their conference opener Jan.3 in Tucson. Moving deeper into the Pac-12 Conference schedule the Arizona Wildcats face Utah, Oregon, Oregon St. and Arizona State.
Those teams are a combined 32-10 with Oregon having the highest RPI ranking of 33—going 3-1 against RPI Top 100 teams and Utah going 3-2. They should not pose a problem for the Wildcats, but that’s what everybody thought in 2004 as well.