Coming into the season ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll and No. 5 in the USA Today basketball coaches poll, it’s safe to say that expectations in Tucson have reached a fever pitch.
Friday night’s 8:06 p.m. MT tipoff will officially usher in the Aaron Gordon era, but how long said era will last is unknown.
It was a decade ago when the ‘Cats came into the 2003-04 season with their highest-ever ranking in the AP poll at No. 4. The roster was stacked with future NBA stars in Andre Igodaula and Channing Frye with Hassan Adams, Salim Stoudamire and Mustafa Shakur pitching in. Head coach Lute Olson’s squad went on to a disappointing season at 20-10 and 11-7 in the Pac-10. They were the No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round to Seton Hall.
The 2003-04 season is a cautionary tale of how irrelevant the preseason rankings can be and what Sean Miller and company will need to do to avoid the same fate of that squad.
Without further ado, here is the complete breakdown of what to expect in the coming season from the Wildcats’ 2013-14 men’s basketball team.
Head coach Sean Miller has a knack for this recruiting thing. The Wildcats welcomed their third consecutive top-10 recruiting class to campus, including two McDonald’s All-Americans.
With the addition of six incoming freshmen and four transfer students, one might find themselves looking at the program a lot more than usual. The one number that everybody will be looking for and watching will be No. 11.
The 6’9″, 225-pound forward from San Jose, Calif. will be anchoring the front court with returning sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. The accolades for Gordon have already started to roll in having been named to both the Oscar Robertson and Wayman Tisdale Award watch lists by the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).
The Robertson Trophy is presented to the National Player of the Year, and the Tisdale Award is for the nation’s top freshman. Speaking of freshmen, Gordon is one of only four incoming freshmen on the 15-man Robertson watch list and the only Pac-12 freshman on the 10-man Tisdale watch list.
Junior point guard T.J. McConnell enters the 2013-14 season with a heavy load to carry—court general for one of the best frontcourts in the country. Replacing Mark Lyons, McConnell will look to replicate Lyons’ 2012-13 campaign—without all the turnovers. In his first game for the Wildcats in an exhibition against Augustana, McConnell tallied 12 points, eight assists and zero turnovers.
Due to NCAA transfer regulations, McConnell sat out last season but practiced with the Wildcats and learned the offensive scheme and how Coach Miller likes to run the game. The “pass-first” point guard averaged 4.9 assists per game in two seasons at Duquesne. He is a master thief, finishing in the top five nationally in steals in his first two seasons. McConnell was named to the watch list for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s top point guard awarded by the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
Prior to the Gordon announcement earlier this year, the Wildcat faithful were crazy about Hollis-Jefferson. The 6’7″, 215-pound forward from Chester, Penn. committed last year to Coach Miller and was looking to start right away. A consensus top-25 recruit, Hollis-Jefferson will be the perfect candidate to fill the spot vacated by Kevin Parrom.
Hollis-Jefferson played in both the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic earlier this year. He has been invited to play with USA Basketball for the past three seasons and holds both a gold and silver medal.
With only one returning senior, Sean Miller will rely heavily on his junior and sophomore classes. Senior Jordin Mayes saw playing time in every game last year, spelling Mark Lyons at the point guard position. Mayes averaged a paltry 2.8 points per games and carried the lowest field-goal and three-point percentages on the team. That is not the veteran leadership that Miller can rely on.
The 6’3″, 200-pound junior from Gilbert, Ariz. returns to Miller’s starting lineup with a familiar face on the bench—his older brother, Chris. The elder Johnson joined the team this year as a walk-on after playing for Grand Canyon University and Cal State San Bernardino. Both Johnson brothers have two years of eligibility remaining.
Johnson leads all major categories among active Arizona players and needs only 285 points to be the 48th in program history to reach the 1,000-point plateau. Johnson led all Wildcats last year with 68 steals and is currently in second place among active players in the conference with 94. He started all 35 games last year and finished second on the team in minutes played and third in points, averaging 11.5 per game.
As part of the much-heralded big three recruits to play for Miller in 2012-13, Ashley was on a rollercoaster ride his freshman year. He started the season coming off the bench before replacing Grant Jerrett after two games. He then gave way to senior Kevin Parrom, who started the final 12 games.
With Jerrett and Parrom both gone, Ashley is the projected starter alongside phenom Aaron Gordon, but only time will tell if he holds on to the starting role or relinquishes it to incoming freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Ashley was a sharpshooter from the field, finishing No. 2 on the team in field-goal percentage and was a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
The 7’0″, 235-pound center that goes by “Zeus” started every game (35) his freshman year, a feat that went into Arizona Wildcats history for most starts for a freshman. He led the Wildcats in field-goal percentage at 53.8 percent and rebounds with 6.1 per game.
Roster and Projected Rotation
With only seven returning players, four of them who received regular playing time, the roster looks quite different than last year. Aside from losing starters Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom, others left to pursue their basketball career elsewhere.
Here is the current roster:
- Forward—Aaron Gordon – freshman
- Forward—Brandon Ashley – sophomore
- Center—Kaleb Tarczewski – sophomore
- Guard—T.J. McConnell – junior
- Guard—Nick Johnson – junior
- Forward—Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – freshman
- Guard—Jordin Mayes – senior
- Guard—Gabe York – sophomore
- Forward—Matt Korcheck – junior
- Forward—Elliott Pitts – freshman
- Forward—Chris Johnson – junior
- Forward—Drew Mellon – junior
- Guard—Jacob Hazzard – sophomore
- Forward—Zach Peters – redshirt freshman
- Forward—Eric Conklin – freshman
- Guard—Trey Mason – freshman
Kevin Parrom perfected the sixth man position for the Wildcats last year. So much so that he earned the starting spot for the final 12 games of the season. He averaged more minutes per game coming off the bench than starting center Kaleb Tarczewski and made the most of his playing time.
Sean Miller will look to freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to fill the role of sixth man, making all his minutes count. With three of the highest-ranked recruits in the nation over the past two years in Arizona’s frontcourt, Hollis-Jefferson will need to work that much harder to prove that he belongs in the same breath as Gordon, Tarczewski and Ashley.
The sophomore York saw limited time as a freshman with starting guards Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson both averaging over 30 minutes per game.
He scored 14 points in the exhibition game against Augustana on 6-of-9 shooting from the field. He averaged 2.4 points per game, seeing action in 15 games. Look for York to overtake the senior Jordin Mayes for playing time, especially if Mayes’ shooting is as bad as it was last season.
Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios
The day was March 31, 1997, a day that is etched in the minds and hearts of all Arizona Wildcats basketball fans.
The scrappy group of Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson and Josh Pastner finished the regular season with a pedestrian 11-7 conference record yet still managed a NCAA No. 4 seed.
It has been a long 16-year stretch since that fateful day, with only one return to the Championship Game in 2001—a 10-point loss to Duke.
Will this be the year when they win it all for Sean Miller?
The nonconference schedule is ranked by ESPN.com as the seventh-toughest schedule with games on the road against Michigan and San Diego State. Conference foes UCLA, Oregon and Colorado also look to trip up the ‘Cats.
With the Big Three up front, McConnell and Johnson in the backcourt and Hollis-Jefferson and others coming off the bench, this team has the talent to win it all for Coach Miller.
However, there is such a thing as too much talent—too many chiefs and not enough indians. With such big personalities, there is the possibility that the team won’t gel as a unit. In the worst-case scenario, their egos will be too big for their gym shorts, and they will suffer another embarrassing first-round loss reminiscent of the 1993 NCAA Tournament when they lost to 15-seed Santa Clara.
Prediction: 27-4 (15-3), At-Large Bid, NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
They will open the season on a tear, winning the first 10 games before falling to Michigan in Ann Arbor. The McKale Center crowd will be very pleased as the ‘Cats will be a perfect 18-0 at home.
I see them losing a few heart-breakers along the way on the road to UCLA, Oregon and Colorado while making quick work of in-state rival Arizona State and the rest of the conference.
They will be awarded with a No. 2 seed and will have little trouble advancing out of the first two rounds to the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, that will be the final game of the Aaron Gordon era, and Hollis-Jefferson will have no problem filling the void in the future.
Once again, the people of Tucson will be left wanting more and wondering what it will take to return to NCAA elite.