TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) – Losing the two best players from a team that came within a few seconds of reaching the Final Four would be a crushing blow for most teams.
At Arizona, where talent seemingly comes through the McKale Center in a revolving door, the expectations have gone up, not down.
”I think we have the makings of a team that can go on and do some great things,” said coach Sean Miller, whose Wildcats open the season Friday night against Mount St. Mary’s.
The Wildcats were predicted for big things last season and came through, winning 33 games while coming within a last-second shot to just miss the Final Four for the second time in three seasons.
Arizona lost two key contributors from that team: Guard and leader Nick Johnson, and athletic freshman forward Aaron Gordon.
And yet, the Wildcats are considered to be on the short list of favorites to win this season’s national title.
Look at their roster and it’s easy to understand.
Forward Brandon Ashley is back after missing the final 16 games of last season with a broken foot. He’s healthy, though he may get extra rest early in the season to ease back into things.
Gritty, steady point guard T.J. McConnell returns for a second season. Sharpshooter Gabe York and play-it-at-level-11 forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also return.
And, of course, there’s another sterling recruiting class by Miller.
Stanley Johnson leads the way. Like Gordon a year ago, the 6-foot-7 forward appears ready to step in and play at a high level right away.
The class also includes speedy guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, 7-foot center Dusan Ristic of Serbia and junior college transfer Kadeem Allen.
Even for a storied program like Arizona’s, expectations will be ratcheted up this season.
”Everybody is going to be looking to knock you off. You have to certainly embrace that and acknowledge it, but you have to take the challenge as well,” Ashley said. ”With such a high statement of how talented our team is, you have to embrace that.”
Arizona has had some heralded freshmen in five seasons under Miller and Johnson has a chance to become the best of the bunch. As Gordon did last season, he arrives in the desert with a polished game and incredible athleticism. Johnson could be a nightmare matchup for opposing teams, able to score inside against smaller players and get around bigger players on the perimeter. He also should be a better outside shooter than Gordon.
McConnell was heralded as the true point guard Arizona had been missing and didn’t disappoint. The 6-foot-1 transfer from Duquesne added a dose of steadiness and intensity to the Wildcats, orchestrating the offense and hounding opposing guards at the top of the defense. He averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 assists per game, but his value goes well beyond numbers.
Kaleb Tarczewski made some impressive strides as a sophomore last season. A little raw as a freshman, the 7-footer known as Zeus had improved footwork last season, shot better away from the basket and increased his free-throw shooting from 63 to 76 percent. With another offseason to work on his game, he will be a handful for opposing teams.
Miller has stressed the defensive side of the ball since arriving in the desert – well, even back to his Xavier days – and the Wildcats have become one of the stingiest teams in the country. Arizona was fourth nationally in shooting defense, holding opponents to 38 percent, and was sixth in scoring, allowing 58.6 points per game. With the roster Miller has assembled, the Wildcats could be even better this season.
Ashley’s injury against California last season was a huge blow. The 6-foot-9 junior is a difficult matchup on offense, almost impossible to stop down low – or on the offensive glass – and is a good perimeter shooter after working on his shot last season. He may be even more valuable on defense, a long-armed shot blocker inside and agile enough to keep up with smaller players on the outside.
His return comes against a Mount St. Mary’s team that finished below .500 last season (16-17) but reached the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers lost to Albany in the First Four after a surprising run to the Northeast Conference tournament title.
Mount St. Mary’s lost its top three scorers from that team and has been picked to finish fifth in the NEC. Those three players were all guards with deep range as the Mountaineers led the conference in 3-point attempts the last two seasons, but now they may rely more on post play behind 7-footer Taylor Danaher and 6-foot-11 senior Kristijan Krajina.
Third-year coach Jamion Christian’s club has plenty of experience against elite competition but it hasn’t been good, including blowout losses to No. 1 Michigan State and Villanova last November.
The Mountaineers have never faced Arizona and are 1-21 all-time against ranked teams, with the only win coming over Georgia Tech in 1995.