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.