In six seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller has just about done it all. He re-tooled a program in transition, brought it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament four times, had three 30-win seasons and won three Pac-12 titles.
The only thing missing from Miller’s resume is a Final Four.
At the start, this year’s Wildcats won’t be a popular pick to end up in Houston, but that doesn’t mean they should already be counted out. While it’s tough to peg exactly how good Arizona will be this year, the talent is undeniable.
On one hand, the Wildcats lose their top four contributors from a year ago — each of whom played in all 38 games, averaged double-figures in scoring and combined to attempt nearly 63 percent of the team’s shots.
It’s natural to expect to see Arizona take a step back as it struggles to fill that void. But Miller has reloaded his roster, and while it might not immediately be as good as the 34-4 group that went to the Elite Eight last year, it has the talent to finish near the top of the Pac-12.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York are the lone returners who played more than 20 minutes per game last year and both will be called on to contribute even more. York’s production has increased steadily over his first three years in Tucson and he will have to do even more to keep his starting job with freshmen like Ray Smith and Allonzo Trier right behind him.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright will join York in the starting backcourt. The small sophomore played a backup role last season, but came to Tucson as a four-star recruit with a reputation as a savvy point guard. With York next to him and an experienced frontcourt, he’ll have no shortage of options on offense.
Up front, Tarczewski has been a mark of consistency in Miller’s program. The three-year starter opted to come back for his senior season, and in doing so has set himself up to be one of the best big men in the Pac-12. Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson will play alongside Tarczewski. With the Eagles, Anderson was both dominant and consistent as a scorer and rebounder. He’ll undoubtedly have to shake off some rust after sitting out a year, but if he can return to form, Arizona will have an experienced and powerful tandem in the frontcourt.
Off the bench, Arizona will have to rely on a bevy of freshmen, but Miller has brought in a strong recruiting class. Smith and Trier could both find their way into the starting lineup at some point, while Chance Comanche comes in as a top-100 center and Justin Simon as a top-100 guard. If they can all have an impact, the Wildcats suddenly become an incredibly deep team.
There’s no doubt that the pieces are there for Arizona to succeed. It’s just a question of how well they fit together.
The bad news is that Stanley Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell are all gone. The good news is that Arizona has suitable replacements, either in subs from last year, transfers or freshman. The challenge will be getting everyone to settle into a new role.
That’s going to start with Jackson-Cartwright. The sophomore has yet to truly be tested, but will be expected to start at point guard in the Pac-12. If he can add a shooting touch to his ball-handling and passing abilities, he can be tough to defend and would be just another threat on a skilled Wildcats team.
Tollefsen is also a bit of an X factor. The 1,000-point scorer from San Francisco will have to adjust to a higher level of play, but is someone who can give Arizona versatility. He can play the wing, where he became a solid three-point shooter with the Dons, or go big and add another post threat if Anderson or Tarczewski get into foul trouble.
Look for Tarczewski, the lone returning starter from last year’s team, to be the anchor of this team. The senior center will need to be a mark of consistency as a senior, especially while the team may go through early growing pains. If he does that, you can expect to see his name on the postseason Pac-12 honor role.
We’ll get an early look at how Miller has put this team together on Dec. 5 when the Wildcats get their first true test of the year — a trip north to face Gonzaga.
If guys like Smith and Trier aren’t ready to play right away, Arizona goes from a stacked group to remarkably thin. There’s little worry about the four upperclassmen in the starting lineup — though Anderson and Tollefsen are new to the program, they still have collegiate experience. After that, things get sketchy.
While Jackson-Cartwright might have the talent at point guard, it will be tough to make up for McConnell’s absence from a leadership standpoint. McConnell was a two-time all-conference defensive selection and played more minutes on average than anyone on the team.
As for the bench, Ristic and Pitts are the only two guys who played last year and both will have to accept larger roles. How will Miller reconcile playing time between Trier, Pitts, Allen and Simon? The coach has a ton of talent at guard and it will be interesting to see how he juggles it.
And take a look at the Pac-12 as a whole. Utah may be picked to win the league and boasts a much more experienced club, while Cal returns some big pieces from last year and brings two top-10 freshmen in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Those two schools may start ahead of Arizona, and if the Wildcats struggle, it may be hard for them to gain the confidence to catch up.
By March, expect to see Arizona playing well and with a favorable NCAA Tournament draw — even if it’s a rough road to get there.