Wildcats facing questions on and off the court
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona has been connected to a pay-to-play investigation for the third time in 13 months, this time during a trial of three recruiting insiders found guilty of fraud charges.
The latest ties to shady recruiting practices cast a shadow over the Wildcats for the second straight season.
Arizona will face plenty of questions on the court as well.
Coming off a sweep of the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles, the Wildcats are in rebuilding mode for the 2018-19 season. A team like Arizona never fully rebuilds, so it’s more like a restocking. The players that coach Sean Miller has on his roster are talented, but most of it is unproven talent, leading to the Wildcats being unranked in The Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since 2010-11.
“We have a long way to go,” Miller said. “Every team does this time of year, but, in our case, maybe even a little further just because of so much wholesale change. It’s something that I have not experienced, and it’s almost like taking over a new program.”
Arizona had the type of roster a year ago that was expected to contend for Miller’s first Final Four, filled with a mix of veteran players and another stellar recruiting class.
The Wildcats seemed to be on a roll after becoming the second team in conference history to sweep both Pac-12 titles, but flamed out in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Buffalo in the opening round.
In their places are a group of returning players who will have to take on larger roles and new players who will have to find their footing in Miller’s system.
“We have high expectations for ourselves and we’re not going to put that to the side just because we lost a couple of players,” sophomore guard Brandon Rudolph said. “We still have those high expectations. We still expect to make it to the tournament. We still expect to make it far in the tournament.”
A few things to look for from Arizona:
THE RETURNEES: The Wildcats don’t have a single player who averaged double-figure scoring last season. Junior guard Dylan Smith is the leading returning scorer at 4.3 points per game and Randolph put up 3.7 his first season in Tucson. Point guard Alex Barcello, forward Ira Lee and guard Emmanuel Akot played in most of the games last season, though in limited minutes.
TRANSFERS: With so few key returning players, Miller will have to rely heavily on his transfers. The Wildcats have a good group. Chase Jeter, a 6-foot-10 forward, said out last season after transferring from Duke and will give the Wildcats an athletic inside presence. Ryan Luther, a 6-9 forward, averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds as a junior at Pittsburgh, but was limited by injuries. Grad transfer guard Justin Coleman averaged 13.5 points and 6.6 assists as a junior at Samford and is eligible immediately. He spent his first two seasons at Alabama and gives the Wildcats a legitimate offensive orchestrator.
THE FRESHMEN: The FBI investigation and the stain on Arizona’s program hurt on the recruiting trail, where Miller had previously been able to routinely pull in some of the nation’s best classes. Arizona’s 2018 class took a hit a couple of weeks before the season when Belgian forward Omar Thielemans opted to leave the program. The marquee player of the class is Brandon Williams. The 6-2 guard withdrew his commitment to Arizona amid the FBI investigation, but still ended up in Tucson, giving Arizona one of the nation’s top freshmen point guards.
SCHEDULING: Arizona’s schedule looks a lot like it does in most years: Plenty of mid-major programs playing in Tucson, a handful of marquee games before the Pac-12 season starts. The Wildcats should face an early test at the Maui Invitational, a field that includes No. 3 Gonzaga, No. 4 Duke, No. 11 Auburn and Xavier. Arizona has a road game against Alabama and plays Baylor at home in December.
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