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Arizona Brings Balance, Experience, NBA Prospects At Every Position

Most of the preseason chatter in college basketball has focused on Kentucky, where another loaded recruiting class has them once again being compared to NBA teams. John Calipari has his usual absurd collection of talent in Lexington, but as last season proved, there’s no guarantee it instantly coalesces into a dominant team. If you are looking for a front-runner, your best bet is Arizona, a balanced and experienced squad with an NBA prospect at every position.

You could make the argument that Arizona was the best team in the country last season, at least before Brandon Ashley broke his foot. Sean Miller’s team was 21-0 with Ashley in the line-up, including road wins at Michigan and San Diego State and a “neutral floor” win over Duke in New York City. They went 13-5 without him, but they never found a replacement for his combination of size, speed and floor spacing ability, losing to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.

While they lost their two best players - Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon - to the NBA, they return everyone else and they are bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. If Miller can get everyone to buy into a team concept, Arizona has all the pieces to make a run at a national title. They not only have elite talent, they have experienced talent, as they are starting a senior, two juniors and a sophomore with legitimate shots to play at the next level.

Stanley Johnson is widely projected to follow in Gordon’s footsteps as a one-and-done player, but they won’t need him to be a star as a freshman, only a role player. Johnson will likely be the fifth wheel to start the season, behind Ashley, Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and TJ McConnell. DraftExpress has Johnson at No. 9 in their Top 100, RHJ at No. 15, Tarczewski at No. 79 and Ashley at No. 88, while McConnell is ranked among the Top 50 seniors.

It isn’t quite the collection of talent at Kentucky, but it is far more evenly distributed. Instead of having all their best players sharing time at PF and C, Arizona has an NBA prospect at PG, SG, SF, PF and C, with three guys - Johnson, RHJ and Ashley - who can swing between multiple positions on both sides of the ball. Along with designated shooter Gabe York, Miller can align his top six players in an almost any combination, going small or big with a drop of the hat. 

The key is Ashley, whose ability to spread the floor from multiple positions upfront will open things up for everyone else. At 6’8 230 with a 7’2 wingspan, he’s not an elite athlete, but he’s a smooth player who can shoot 3’s, put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. While he averaged only 11 points and 6 rebound a game as a sophomore, his ability to shoot - 52% from the field, 38% from 3 - and defend at multiple positions was sorely missed after he went down.

Without Ashley, Miller was forced to choose between big line-ups that could not shoot and shooting line-ups without a lot of size. Ashley was the glue that held everything else together - he allowed Arizona to spread the floor while still playing non-shooters in Gordon and Tarczewski. There are no counters at the college level for a team that goes 6’8, 6’9 and 6’11 upfront while still being able to defend 25+ feet from the basket and shoot over the top of a zone.

That’s what they will able to do this season, with RHJ filling in for Gordon. RHJ was overshadowed by his high-profile classmate, but he was one of the most impressive freshmen in the country in his own right last season. At 6’7 220 with a 7’0 wingspan, he is an elite athlete who can defend four positions at the college level and create shots off the dribble not just for himself, but for his teammates. That’s where the Andre Iguodala comparisons come from.

With so much talent on the perimeter, not many people are talking about Tarczewski, whose been a good but not great player in his first two seasons in Tucson. He will never be the most graceful athlete on the floor, but his combination of size - 6’11 250 - and scoring ability means he will have a 10-year career in the NBA and very few college big men will have a chance of matching up with him. If they need to slow the game down, they can always throw it inside

At the college level, all the talent in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have a PG who can take care of the ball, run the offense and keep everyone involved. That’s where Arizona has the edge over most of the other teams at the top of the polls - they have a 22-year old senior PG whose already played in over 100 college games in his career. TJ McConnell averaged 5.3 assists on 1.8 turnovers a game last season and he functions as another coach on the floor.

If you look back at the recent history of NCAA champions, almost all of them had a senior PG. There was Shabazz Napier in 2014, Peyton Siva in 2013, Kemba Walker (a junior) in 2011, Jon Scheyer in 2010, Ty Lawson (a junior) in 2009, Mario Chalmers in 2008, Taurean Greene in 2007. The one outlier was Kentucky in 2012, who had freshman Marquis Teague at point, but they are a textbook example of the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe Karl Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison Twins will fit together as seamlessly as Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but there are no guarantees. Even if they do, they wouldn’t necessarily be favored over an Arizona team that is almost as big, just as fast and far more balanced. Five of the top six players in Arizona’s rotation have experience, so they won’t have nearly as big a learning curve as the other top-ranked Wildcats.

Like most Pac-12 teams, they don’t get a ton of national attention because so many of their games happen while the rest of the country is sleeping. Nevertheless, Sean Miller has the program back to where it was at the peak of the Lute Olson era, when they were a perennial Final Four contender that churned out NBA players - from Sean Elliott to Damon Stoudemire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Gilbert Arenas, Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.

Olson turned the school into UCLA’s main rival for being the premier destination for talent on the West Coast. There are always a ton of California players on Arizona’s roster and they are usually in the running for every elite prospect west of the Mississippi. Miller, with his roots in the Midwest, has taken their brand national, luring Northeastern guys like Tarczewski (New Hampshire), RHJ and McConnell (Pennsylvania) to the sun and sand of Arizona.

Nor is he just a recruiter, as his teams typically play stifling half-court defense and share the ball extremely well on offense. Miller is a sharp customer - Arizona plays on a string on both sides of the ball and they don’t tend to make a lot of unforced errors. He has also shown the ability to adjust on the fly and move his teams deep into the NCAA Tournament on an annual basis. In five seasons at Arizona, he has made one Sweet Sixteen and two Elite Eights.

Before Ashley was injured, they were playing as well as any college team in recent memory. Even without Gordon and Johnson, this year is unfinished business for the Wildcats, who still have more than enough star-power from the trio of Ashley, RHJ and Johnson. They can do everything - they can play big, they can play small, they can play fast and they can play slow. If I have to pick a team in November to cut down the nets in March, I’m going with Arizona.

Early Season Tournaments, Part 2

My projections for 351 teams will be revealed by SI this week. But today I want to use those projections to compute the odds for this year's early season tournaments.

Battle 4 Atlantis

Atlantis

Semis

Final

Champ

Wisconsin

97%

62%

46%

UAB

3%

0%

0%

Florida

72%

31%

21%

Georgetown

28%

7%

3%

UCLA

44%

17%

4%

Oklahoma

56%

24%

6%

Butler

17%

5%

1%

North Carolina

83%

54%

19%

Florida and Georgetown's aircraft carrier game may have been cancelled last year due to weather, but they will meet in the first round here.

Georgetown's fate depends quite a bit on the unpredictable Joshua Smith. And UCLA's lack of depth could hold them back. But six of these teams (everyone but Butler and UAB) look like NCAA tournament squads and that makes this event must-watch TV.

NIT

NIT

Semis

Final

Minnesota

58%

21%

St. John's

42%

12%

Georgia

23%

10%

Gonzaga

77%

57%

St. John's should probably get a bump for playing on their home floor, but I did not give them credit for a home court advantage in these calculations. The Gophers won the post-season NIT on this floor last year.

Thanks to the additions of transfers Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley, Gonzaga has five players who are former double digit scorers. The Bulldogs typically thrive in these early season events. Gonzaga has won three of the last six holiday tournaments that they have participated in.

Great Alaska Shootout

Alaska

Semis

Final

Champ

Pacific

85%

17%

5%

Anchorage

15%

1%

0%

Missouri St.

27%

19%

9%

Colorado St.

73%

63%

44%

Rice

31%

6%

1%

Mercer

69%

23%

7%

Washington St.

42%

28%

12%

UC Santa Barbara

58%

43%

21%

Colorado St. has four transfers that I expect to be major contributors making them one of the most intriguing teams to see early in the season. Washington St. may be the Pac-12 school, but thanks to Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara is favored to win in the first round.

Orlando Classic

Orlando Classic

Semis

Final

Champ

Santa Clara

30%

3%

1%

Tennessee

70%

11%

4%

Kansas

88%

79%

64%

Rhode Island

12%

7%

3%

Michigan St.

85%

62%

21%

Rider

15%

5%

1%

Marquette

69%

26%

6%

Georgia Tech

31%

7%

1%

I'm very interested in seeing new Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski on the sidelines. With Matt Carlino and a number of former elite recruits, Marquette could be a sleeper team this year. But teaching a bunch of new players to run and gun while still playing elite defense is not easy. Tennessee also has a ton of new faces and is very hard to peg.

Though Kansas is the prohibitive favorite, they do not draw a weak first round opponent. Rhode Island is a much-improved team, and would be favored over Santa Clara, Rider, and Georgia Tech in the loser's bracket.

Wooden Legacy

Wooden Legacy

Semis

Final

Champ

Princeton

52%

20%

10%

UTEP

48%

18%

9%

San Diego

24%

10%

4%

Xavier

76%

52%

35%

Long Beach St.

56%

25%

9%

Western Michigan

44%

17%

6%

San Jose St.

17%

4%

1%

Washington

83%

54%

27%

Xavier is one of the deepest teams in the country and Washington should be much improved defensively thanks to the addition of transfer and 7-footer Robert Upshaw.

Las Vegas Invitational

Las Vegas Invitational

Semis

Final

Indiana St.

24%

6%

Illinois

76%

37%

Baylor

37%

19%

Memphis

63%

39%

Memphis lost a lot of scorers from last year’s team, but the Tigers have eight players who were RSCI Top 100 recruits out of high school, three players who were Top 100 JUCO players, and a talented transfer from Southern University named Calvin Godfrey. The Tigers legitimately have twelve players who project as capable rotation pieces, and that means that the winners of the competition for playing time should be good.

Emerald Coast Classic

Emerald Coast

Semis

Final

Middle Tennessee

23%

6%

Cincinnati

77%

43%

Creighton

41%

19%

Mississippi

59%

31%

With a dominant lead-guard in Jarvis Summers, some quality veteran forwards and several key transfers, Ole Miss is going to sneak up on a lot of teams this year.

Corpus Christi Coastal Classic

Corpus Christi

Semis

Final

Bradley

33%

11%

TCU

67%

35%

Mississippi St.

48%

25%

Saint Louis

52%

29%

I'm including this event because it includes four teams from major conferences, but these are four of the worst major conference teams out there. I'm not sure any of them will crack the Top 100.

Barclays Classic

Barclays Classic

Semis

Final

Rutgers

40%

5%

Vanderbilt

60%

10%

La Salle

14%

8%

Virginia

86%

77%

Virginia has nothing to gain and everything to lose in this tournament. Anytime you play power conference schools on a neutral floor, you can get upset. And La Salle has a formidable frontcourt. But these opponents might not even count as Top 100 wins at the end of the year.

Las Vegas Classic

Las Vegas Classic

Semis

Final

Texas Tech

73%

32%

Loyola Chicago

27%

6%

Houston

45%

27%

Boise St.

55%

35% 

The only thing holding Boise St. back from greatness is their defense. Houston is one of my sleeper teams, but with LJ Rose out early in the year, they may do more damage in conference play.

Diamond Head

Diamond Head

Semis

Final

Champ

Ohio

34%

11%

2%

George Washington

66%

32%

11%

DePaul

18%

5%

1%

Colorado

82%

52%

21%

Loyola Marymount

8%

2%

0%

Wichita St.

92%

65%

47%

Nebraska

81%

31%

18%

Hawaii

19%

3%

1% 

Wichita St. needs to find the right combination of front-court players to compliment its talented backcourt, but by the time December rolls around and they fly to Hawaii, they should have that figured out.

Early Season Tournaments Part 1

My projections for 351 teams will be revealed by Sports Illustrated next week. But today I want to use those projections to compute the odds for this year's early season tournaments.

Puerto Rico Tipoff

Puerto Rico Tipoff

Semis

Final

Champ

Texas A&M

38%

12%

7%

Dayton

62%

26%

18%

College of Charleston

11%

2%

1%

Connecticut

89%

59%

45%

New Mexico

55%

26%

8%

Boston College

45%

20%

5%

George Mason

36%

16%

4%

West Virginia

64%

38%

13%

UConn is likely to use a 4-guard lineup with Ryan Boatright, transfer Rodney Purvis, JUCO Sam Cassell Jr, and five-star freshman Daniel Hamilton at times this year. I’m looking forward to seeing that lethal offensive attack unleashed.

Texas A&M's odds of winning the tournament got a lot better when it was announced that transfer Jalen Jones would eligible in November, but they have to go through two NCAA tournament teams from a year ago, Dayton and Connecticut, just to reach the finals.

Charleston Classic

Charleston Classic

Semis

Final

Champ

USC

52%

17%

7%

Akron

48%

15%

6%

Drexel

18%

7%

2%

Miami FL

82%

61%

39%

Penn St.

71%

38%

19%

Charlotte

29%

10%

3%

Cornell

10%

1%

0%

South Carolina

90%

51%

25%

Miami (FL) won't be 100% in this tournament as Ivan Uceda must sit out the start of the season and cannot play until January. But with transfers Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez leading the way, and redshirt freshman Deandre Burnett now healthy, they are still the tournament favorite.

I understand why Penn St. and South Carolina aren't getting more love nationally. After the way their teams have performed historically, people tend to write them off before the season starts. But both teams have veteran lineups with more skilled players than most people realize, and don't be surprised if one of those teams wins this tournament.

2K Sports Classic

2K Sports

Final

Champ

Texas

60%

40%

Iowa

40%

22%

Syracuse

64%

27%

California

36%

11%

Texas has a deep and talented frontcourt with Cameron Ridley, Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes, and Connor Lammert. But so does Iowa. Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, and Gabriel Olaseni aren't just going to roll over. Their first-round game is a great early season match-up.

Cal is an underdog in this field, but they have over a 50% chance of winning at least one game, and any victory in this tournament will resonate on Selection Sunday.

Paradise Jam

Paradise Jam

Semis

Final

Champ

Clemson

76%

42%

19%

Gardner Webb

24%

7%

2%

Seton Hall

70%

40%

19%

Nevada

30%

11%

3%

LSU

66%

45%

29%

Old Dominion

34%

18%

9%

Illinois St.

77%

33%

18%

Weber St.

23%

4%

1%

The bracketing here didn't do tournament favorite LSU any favors. First round opponent Old Dominion has a veteran team that should be much improved thanks to the addition of transfers Jonathan Arledge and Trey Freeman.

If Clemson and Seton Hall meet in the second round, it should be a great matchup. Clemson has a veteran team that plays outstanding defense while Seton Hall has a talented young recruiting class led by super-scorer Isaiah Whitehead.

Coaches vs Cancer

Coaches vs Cancer

Final

Champ

Stanford

66%

19%

UNLV

34%

6%

Duke

90%

72%

Temple

10%

3%

If you love watching elite freshman, this is the tournament to watch. Duke has Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, and Grayson Allen, while UNLV has Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan, and Goodluck Okonoboh. Meanwhile Stanford has Reid Travis, Robert Cartwright, and Michael Humphrey. But all anyone will be talking about is the possibility of Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins facing his mentor Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Hall of Fame Tipoff

Hall of Fame Tipoff

Final

Champ

Massachusetts

40%

19%

Notre Dame

60%

36%

Providence

46%

20%

Florida St.

54%

25%

This might be the most important holiday tournament this year. All four of these teams project as bubble NCAA squads and the winner of this tournament will pick up two critical non-conference wins. I have Notre Dame as the favorite as I think the return of Jerian Grant is going to improve the Irish substantially.

Maui Invitational

Maui

Semis

Final

Champ

Purdue

28%

4%

1%

Kansas St.

72%

19%

9%

Missouri

9%

3%

1%

Arizona

91%

75%

57%

Pittsburgh

99%

45%

13%

Chaminade

1%

0%

0%

BYU

32%

14%

3%

San Diego St.

68%

41%

16%

I’m looking forward to the contrast in styles between offensively dominant BYU and defensively dominant SDSU.  All seven of the D1 teams in the field have the talent to finish in the Top 100. Missouri is probably the worst of these squads, as they must replace almost all of last year's top scorers, but they have some quality recruits who are capable of pulling an upset.

Legends Classic

Legends

Final

Champ

Villanova

61%

44%

VCU

39%

24%

Michigan

66%

25%

Oregon

34%

8%

This looked like one of the best early season tournaments in the land, with four very talented teams. But the news that Oregon's Michael Chandler is injured and the news that JaQuan Lyle is ineligible makes the Ducks an underdog.

CBE Classic

CBE

Final

Champ

Arizona St.

28%

7%

Maryland

72%

32%

Alabama

27%

12%

Iowa St.

73%

49%

Iowa St. vs Alabama presents another great contrast in styles. Fred Hoiberg has been an offensive genius for the Cyclones while Anthony Grant has been a dominant defensive coach (with the exception of last year.)

MGM Grand Main Event

MGM

Final

Champ

Oklahoma St.

87%

47%

Oregon St.

13%

2%

Auburn

44%

21%

Tulsa

56%

30%

There are lots of new faces in this tournament. I'm looking forward to seeing how transfer Anthony Hickey fits in with Oklahoma St., how quickly new head coach Bruce Pearl can build Auburn into a winner, and how Tulsa adjust to new head coach Frank Haith.

Oregon St.’s roster is in terrible shape which makes Oklahoma St. the favorite even though they might not be an NCAA tournament team.

Cancun Challenge

Cancun Challenge

Final

Champ

Virginia Tech

35%

16%

Northern Iowa

65%

40%

Miami OH

30%

9%

Northwestern

70%

35%

If the MVC is going to get two NCAA bids this year, Northern Iowa must win here. Chris Collins begins year two of the Northwestern rebuild while Buzz Williams begins year one of the Virginia Tech rebuild.

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