“At Arizona this is our best collection of talent in terms of size. We have experience and we have depth. We have 10 players who can play. The challenge is for us to keep growing and keep getting better. Stay connected and hopefully that talent will grow. — Sean Miller, fall of 2012
TUCSON, Ariz. — Another year, another set of expectations.
For nearly every year of the last 30 years, Arizona fans have had high expectations. Since 1988 — Arizona’s first glorious run at a national title — it’s been Final Four or bust.
Nothing has changed except the players and the coach.
It’s what the program’s foundation was all about under Lute Olson and what it continues to evolve into under Miller, the architect of what now could be considered one of the more talented teams UA has potentially ever — yes, ever — assembled.
Miller, however, is not getting carried away.
“I do believe where we are rated and how good we are supposed to be … we may not be that good. I don’t know yet,” Miller said on Wednesday at the team’s annual media day, where he spent 30 minutes discussing this year’s team, which has been ranked among the nation’s top five and top 10 in various preseason prognostications.
Miller, who is now in his fifth year at Arizona, said there’s too much to work on, including working in a talented but raw recruiting class. And, realistically, it’s still just late September and way too early for things to shake themselves out.
“Expectations are easy to deflate, but (what you’ve got to do) is come out and play as hard as you can every time, and it should take care of itself,” said Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon, a big reason why many consider the Wildcats to have Final Four potential. “There are expectations for a reason, but it’s because the past here has given people that. But all we can do is add to the past.”
The Wildcats understand that Final Four talk is best left for March. In late September and a day short of college basketball’s first day of practice, Miller said this team isn’t as deep as his teams in the past. It’s “one man down” near the basket; perimeter shooting is a big question — although “we have a number of guys we are going to count on who haven’t done it.”
One of the questions will be answered if 6-foot-10 junior college transfer Matt Korcheck, who redshirted last year, can help with quality minutes inside. Another potential answer could come from 6-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a well-built freshman who could be a defensive stopper. And then there’s 6-10 center Zach Peters, who is still awaiting word on his eligibility after transferring from Kansas.
“He can shoot and is skilled,” Miller said.
What’s clear is UA lost depth and a wealth of “very old and experienced players” in Solomon Hill, Mark Lyons and Kevin Parrom, all of whom contributed mightily to Arizona’s Sweet 16 a season ago.
“I do think we are one of the teams that have a promising season ahead, but how good we are going to be remains to be seen,” Miller said. “We will learn a lot over the next four to six weeks and certainly as we move towards Christmas.”
That said, Miller feels it’s as talented a group as he’s had at Arizona, just not as experienced. He does have some pretty good parts in places, despite saying he could very well go only eight deep rather than 10.
“I love the talent on our team, but I don’t think we’re going to walk out there and overwhelm every team that we’re going to play,” Miller said. “We’re in a position to win, but there will be nights where we will have to play an excellent game to do that.”
The experience will come from junior guard Nick Johnson, sophomore 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-8 sophomore forward Brandon Ashley.
And then have a true point guard running the show in T.J. McConnell, who takes over for Lyons, who handled the point responsibilities for one season out of necessity. McConnell, a transfer from Duquesne, could be the best point guard UA has had since Jason Gardner more than a decade ago. The fact that he spent last season sitting out — and working out — with the team should makes for a smooth transition.
“We know what he can do and equally important is that he has great familiarity with not only his teammates but our system,” Miller said. “He brings the element of experience, and his style of play impacts the game on defense and offense.”
He’ll have a formidable frontcourt to work with, despite Miller’s concerns about depth. How’s this for starters: Gordon and sophomores Ashley and Tarczewski. Tarczewski lost 20 pounds and is “leaner” and quicker than a year ago. Ashley is confident and ready to take on a bigger role.
“He’s been very hungry since our season ended a year ago to be better and has put a lot of work in,” said Miller.
Ashley said he “practically lived in the gym” this summer. He worked on his “motor and worked on his outside game.”
Can he be one of Arizona’s scorers on the perimeter, a dire need? Ashley pointed out that even though he took only three 3-pointers last year, he hit all of them.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with it, but it was something I didn’t feel I needed to do, but this year I’m going to have to step up my role,” he said.
Tarczewski feels the same way.
“I worked real hard, working on a mid-range jump shot and worked on quickness,” Tarczewski. “I really think this is going to be a great year.”
As for the expectations? Gordon says there’s no point in obsessing on them, or shying away from them: “Without a doubt I feel we can compete with anybody in the country, we just need to play hard every game. All we need to do is reciprocate the other team’s energy and add something on to it.”
Peters, who transferred from Kansas after suffering multiple concussions last year, committed to UA in May and has petitioned the NCAA for immediate eligibility. He’s done everything but fullcourt drills, Miller said.
“We’ve done everything that we need to do, Zach’s family has done everything they need to do. Kansas has been incredibly cooperative,” Miller said. “They’ve done everything they need to do. It’s probably as simple as one person picking up a piece of paper, walking 50 feet and dropping it off on a desk, and that (next) person picking up the paper and putting a check mark on it. But we’re not there yet.”