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Arizona basketball preview: No. 2 Wildcats are poised to compete for national title

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Arizona is the No. 2 team in our college basketball countdown.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It took a few seasons for Arizona to pivot from the Lute Olson era, but there's no denying the Wildcats eventually landed on the right man for the job. As Sean Miller enters his sixth season in Tucson, the Wildcats might be the country's fastest growing college basketball powerhouse.

Only John Calipari is recruiting better than Miller lately, and it's given Arizona a steady supply of pro talent to replenish the roster every single year. One season after landing a pair of McDonald's All-Americans in Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Miller is bringing in three more top-60 recruits in a class headlined by star wing Stanley Johnson. A year from now, Arizona already has four top-100 prospects verbally committed. The cycle repeats itself.

With Gordon and reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson off to the NBA, opportunity has arrived for Hollis-Jefferson and the freshman Johnson. They will be the two new starters on a team that spent much of last season ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll and reached the Elite 8 before eventually falling to Wisconsin in an overtime classic. This Arizona team has the chance to be every bit as good as last year's squad. Eventually, Arizona is bound to breakthrough with a run to the Final Four, if not the national title.

It's easy to look at a future pro like Johnson and think Arizona's gameplan will revolve around him, but that might not necessarily be the case at first. Arizona has four NBA prospects in the starting lineup and a heady senior point guard to direct the show in T.J. McConnell. If and when Johnson does end up as the primary option this season, it won't be because Arizona lacks other quality offensive players.

The return of Brandon Ashley is a big deal. Ashley's season was sacked in at the beginning of February last year when he suffered a broken foot. Arizona was still able to go on a deep tournament run, but there's no question they could have used a versatile power forward like Ashley in the lineup. At 6'9, 230 pounds, Ashley can hit three-pointers and hold his own on the inside. He averaged 11.5 points per game last year while posted a 59.4 true shooting percentage.

Ashley is joined in the front court by center Kaleb Tarczewski, who ESPN ranked as the No. 4 overall recruit in 2012. Tarczewski hasn't really been able to live up to that billing his first two years in Tucson, but he's still a quality two-way starting center at the college level. At 7-feet, 245 pounds, Tarczewski will be the biggest player on the court no matter who Arizona is playing. He wasn't dominant as a sophomore, but he also didn't really need to be. He was an efficient scorer -- his 63.2 true shooting percentage placed in the top 50 of the country -- and enough of a deterrent at the rim to key the best defense in the country even without many blocked shots.

Throw in Johnson's knack for getting buckets and Hollis-Jefferson's ability to turn defense into offense, and it's easy to see how loaded this team is. There are no weak spots in the lineup and the bench is essentially comprised of former top recruits who are biding their time for a bigger opportunity.

At the onset of the season, there appears to be a number of complete teams near the top of the college basketball rankings. The good teams seem good this year. Arizona is as good as any of them. This much talent makes for a Final Four-or-bust scenario, but the nice thing for Miller is he knows this won't be last shot. It feels like Arizona is just getting started.

Projected starting lineup

PG T.J. McConnell, senior

SG Stanley Johnson, freshman

SF Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, sophomore

PF Brandon Ashley, junior

C Kaleb Tarczewski, junior

Key reserves: G Gabe York (junior), G Elliott Pitts (sophomore), G Kadeem Allen (junior), F Craig Victor (freshman), C Matt Korchek (senior), G Parker Jackson-Cartwright (freshman), C Dusan Ristic (freshman)

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How the Wildcats can go far this season: Keep playing defense at an elite level

Arizona finished last season as the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom. Having an absurd athlete like Gordon certainly helped, but there's no reason to believe Miller's pack line defense is going to fall off much without him. The Wildcats will have size and length at every position. If this team wants to defend, they have the capabilities to defend extremely well.

A year ago, Arizona's defense thrived by holding opposing teams to a 42.3 effective field goal percentage -- the lowest mark in the country. Tarczewski, Ashley and Gordon were good enough on the glass to limit second-chance points and the team was able to defend without fouling. That's the blueprint for Miller's defense, and he's got the players to pull it off once again.

Hollis-Jefferson is ready to take Gordon's role as the team's go-to stopper. He has all the makings of an elite wing defender, with a 7'1 wingspan, top-notch athleticism and a good feel for playing the passing lanes without gambling too much. Arizona doesn't play a particularly fast pace, but Hollis-Jefferson's ability to force turnovers and push the ball in transition will result in plenty of easy buckets at the other end. With a good sophomore season, he could be a lottery pick even without three-point shooting ability.

There isn't a better wing combo in America than Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson. Yes, there's a reason Johnson was No. 2 on our list of the 100 best players in college basketball without ever playing a college basketball game. He's expected to essentially be unstoppable as a 6'7, 245-pound wing born with the body of a future star athlete. Stanley Johnson is just too strong and too skilled to deny. Think of him as this year's Jabari Parker, a huge teenage wing who already has a grasp of the game that goes well beyond his years. If he's not a top-10 NBA draft pick in 2015, something went wrong.

McConnell, a former transfer from Duquesne, is the redshirt senior running the show. He does a little bit of everything as a pesky defender, 36-percent three-point shooter and gifted facilitator. Behind him, Arizona has a slew of talented guards on the bench.

The most intriguing of that group might be Kadeem Allen, who simply dominated junior college last year by averaging 25.9 points per game on over 45-percent shooting. He should be the sixth man on a bench that also includes former top-100 recruits Elliott Pitts and Gabe York. Freshman Craig Victor and Parker Jackson-Cartwright will make their presence felt sooner or later, as well.

How Arizona could get sent home early: Lack of shooting

This is the only real question for Arizona. Can McConnell improve his catch-and-shoot game and hit a better percentage than he did last year? Just how good will Johnson be from deep? Can Hollis-Jefferson develop into a threat at all? Will Ashley return from injury as more of a stretch-four than someone built to play inside?

This is where losing Nick Johnson hurts. York is likely the best shooter here after hitting 38.5 percent of the four three-pointers per game he attempted last year. Will he contribute enough elsewhere to find his way onto the court?

As long as Ashley stays healthy and can keep hitting threes at a 38-percent clip like he did last season, Arizona's spacing shouldn't bee too much of an issue. That's the value of a four that needs to be respected from the three-point line. On this team, the shooting will open up more space for Johnson to bully people inside or for Tarczewski to finish around the rim. If Arizona has enough of it, this team will be as good as any in the country.