New-look Wildcats ready to open Miller Era

Almost everything about the Arizona Wildcats seems unfamiliar – their coach, their roster and even the refurbished McKale Center floor.

“It’s really a brand-new fresh canvas,” coach Sean Miller said.

One thing hasn’t changed: expectations.

In the long run, Miller is charged with returning the Wildcats to the national prominence they enjoyed during Hall of Famer Lute Olson’s 24 seasons in the desert, which brought four Final Four trips and a national title in 1997.

This year, the goal is simpler, but perhaps every bit as daunting.

Miller and his youthful squad are under pressure to extend Arizona‘s 25-year string of NCAA tournament appearances, the nation’s longest active streak and two shy of North Carolina‘s record run of 27 straight appearances from 1975 to 2001.

The long tourney run is a powerful recruiting tool. But Miller has warned that it could also be a burden to an inexperienced group.

” ‘The Streak’ is ‘The Streak’ and you can’t get past that,” freshman point guard Lamont ‘MoMo’ Jones said.

The Wildcats were picked fourth in a preseason poll of Pac-10 media.

March seemed a long way off when the Wildcats opened preseason drills. They spent much of the fall being introduced to each other.

Gone are Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, now playing in the NBA.

The players on this year’s team accounted for only 32.9 of Arizona‘s 72.3 points per game in 2008-09.

Arizona‘s only upperclassmen are senior point guard Nic Wise and junior forward Jamelle Horne. Sophomore guard Kyle Fogg, who averaged 6.1 points per game last season, is the Wildcats’ third-leading returning scorer.

Wise wavered on returning for his senior season. But with no guarantees that he’d be drafted last summer, Wise came back and will play for his fourth coach in as many years.

“It’s going to be a big load for me, Jamelle and Fogg, but feels good to finally have a coach,” said Wise.

Wise averaged 15.7 points per game last season, second to California‘s Jerome Randle (18.3) among returners in the Pac-10. Wise also ranked in the top five in assists (4.6 per game), steals (1.5 per game) and free throw percentage (84.8 percent).

Wise is the latest in a long line of star Arizona point guards.

“You want to be the big man,” Wise said. “I’ve just got to live up to the role.”

Wise is generously listed at 5-foot-10, but he’ll be asked to shoulder most of the leadership responsibility, at least early on.

“He certainly has the most at stake, coming back for his senior year, and I certainly wouldn’t trade him with any point guard,” Miller said.

Wise will provide leadership for a flood of new signees, including 6-foot-6 swingman Solomon Hill of Los Angeles; 6-foot-10 center Kyryl Natyazhko of the Ukraine; Jones, a 5-foot-11 point guard of Harlem; and 6-foot-6 swingman Kevin Parrom of the Bronx.

Miller won’t project a starting lineup, and it’s very likely it will change as the season progresses.

Arizona may be inexperienced, but at least the Wildcats have some stability on the bench for the first time in three seasons.

Two years ago, Olson took a personal leave of absence before the season tipped off, turning the team over to interim coach Kevin O’Neill. Back on the job last fall, Olson spoke enthusiastically about the upcoming season at media day, then resigned two days later.

Interim coach Russ Pennell replaced Olson and guided Arizona to its 25th straight NCAA berth – barely. The Wildcats slipped in as a 12th seed, then made a surprising run to the regional semifinals.

After flirting with former USC coach Tim Floyd last spring, Arizona lured the 40-year-old Miller from Xavier with a five-year contract that pays him a base salary of $2 million per year plus a $1 million signing bonus.

Miller will take up residence on the sideline of a refurbished McKale Center court, which will have a different look this season. The school’s trademark block “A” can be found at center court, and the “Lute and Bobbi Olson Court” tribute has moved to the front of the Arizona bench.

“We certainly look forward to the challenge of improvement,” Miller said, “and at the end of the year, if things line up right, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we’re a very good team, and a very dangerous team that has improved a lot.”