Sean Miller has done just about everything a college basketball coach can be realistically asked to do during his seven-year run at Arizona. Miller has taken the Wildcats to the Elite Eight three times, developed five first-round NBA draft picks and is recruiting at a higher level than anyone this side of John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski. At this point, just about the only thing Miller hasn’t done is lead Arizona to the Final Four.
Is this the season he finally breaks through? If it happens, it’s a major testament to Miller’s ability to reload on the fly. Arizona loses 63 percent of its scoring and 70 percent of its rebounding from last season, but still has a roster deep and athletic enough to compete with any team in the country.
There remains a strong group of veterans here, starting with sophomore shooting guard Allonzo Trier. The No. 12 recruit in the RSCI a year ago, Trier is a natural-born bucket-getter. His 14.6 points per game were second among all Pac-12 freshmen, and he did it on an efficient 60.3 true shooting percentage — No. 10 in the conference regardless of class. Trier excels at drawing fouls and can knock down threes (36.4 percent); his next step is developing as a playmaker.
Veterans Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Kadeem Allen join Trier on the perimeter. Allen was a big-time JUCO scorer who turned into a facilitator in his debut season at Arizona last year, posting an impressive 25.4 assist rate to go with 8.4 points per game. Look for an increase in scoring this season. Jackson-Cartwright can be a liability defensively because of his size (5’10), but he’s the team’s best playmaker and another solid shooter (37.5 percent last year).
There’s also 7-foot Serbian center Dusan Ristic, who gets his chance in the spotlight after acting as Kaleb Tarczewski’s understudy the last two years.
Arizona also brings in the country’s No. 6 recruiting class -- a group that could have been even better if five-star wing Terrance Ferguson didn’t decide to play pro ball in Australia. Finnish 7-footer Lauri Markkanen is the player everyone is talking about. He was great in FIBA U20 Europe this summer, leading the tournament in scoring with 24.9 points per game. He projects as a high-level shooter with good mobility who could be a top 10 NBA draft pick after this year if he lives up to the hype.
New York-bred wing Rawle Alkins and 6’6 point guard Kobi Simmons are Arizona’s other five-star freshmen. Throw in another highly touted prospect in bouncy 6’8 forward Ray Smith, who debuts as a redshirt freshman after tearing his ACL last year, and Arizona is loaded with size, athleticism, and versatility on the perimeter.
There’s no question this team has the pedigree to be in the national conversation. Miller’s challenge is getting his alpha dogs to share the ball and buy in defensively. If that happens, a fourth Pac-12 title is there for the taking.
Last season was something of a holdover year for Arizona with Miller forced to rely on transfers because of so many early defections to the NBA. Players like Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen did a nice job in their roles, but this year’s team should feel closer to the squads Miller took to consecutive Elite Eights in 2014 and 2015.
Miller knows what he’s looking for on the recruiting trail: Versatile athletes who are bigger, stronger, and faster than the opponents across from them. Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson set the bar high in that regard, and Alkins, Smith, and Simmons are hoping to follow their lead.
Each of these players is like a raw ball of clay waiting to be molded by Miller. If they are ready to contribute, all three can slide up and down the lineup to give Arizona an abundance of unique looks.
Alkins’ wide shoulders and strong 220-pound frame might remind Arizona fans of Johnson’s build; now Miller has to get him to defend the way Johnson did. Simmons looks like a lottery pick from the shoulders-down as an athletic 6’6 point guard. Miller’s job is to get him to think the game. Smith has torn his ACL in each knee since he last played basketball as a junior in high school. He might be the best long-term prospect of the three as a combo forward who plays above the rim.
It will be fascinating to see how Miller manages his rotations. A five-man lineup of Markkanen-Smith-Alkins-Trier-Allen would put Arizona’s best athletes on the floor. Rustic-Markkanen-Smith-Alkins-Allen would have great size at every position. If the younger half of this roster is ready to go, Miller has a ton of options at his disposal.
If we’re comparing this Arizona team to the 2014 and 2015 squads, the one player Miller really misses is T.J. McConnell. A transfer from Duquense, McConnell turned into a terrific two-way point guard at Arizona and even started 17 games for the Philadelphia 76ers last year as an undrafted rookie.
Getting this roster to share the ball without an established leader like McConnell at point guard will be Miller’s toughest task. There are a lot of scorers in this mix who like the ball in their hands. In a way, Trier is a symbol for the entire roster: he was an efficient scorer as a freshman, but only had 31 assists (against 52 turnovers) the entire season.
If Jackson-Cartwright or Allen can claim the starting point guard spot outright, it would go a long way to helping the offense flow. Miller has recruited an incredible amount of talent to Tucson this year, now he just has to get them to play as one.