By Kyle Caron
#2 Arizona Wildcats
Last Year: 32-5 (16-2 Pac-12) NCAA Sweet Sixteen
Sean Miller is a victim of what I like to call the “Gonzaga complex”. Every year Gonzaga was the most hyped team in the west and expected to win the conference in a landslide, but did anyone ever pick the Bulldogs to reach the Final Four? No. Why? Because they had never done it before. It seems ridiculous to limit a team’s expectations based on past success but that is exactly what happened to Mark Few. No one was going to pick Gonzaga to make a Final Four until they actually did.
The same concept can be applied to Miller and his Arizona Wildcats. They are a fantastic team year in and year out. Yet when it comes time for the tournament, they seem to always fall just short. Arizona has reached the Elite Eight three times since Miller took over but they can never quite break through to the final weekend. This year is their best chance in a while to do just that.
Lauri Markkanen was the most important departure during the offseason. After his freshman season, this Finnish power forward was drafted seventh overall in 2017 to the Timberwolves. In his one season at Arizona, Markkanen was second in points per game, first in rebounds per game, and tied for second in blocks per game. At 7’0 he was one of the tallest forwards in the league and his absence will surely be felt this year.
Another key player that went to the draft was Kadeem Allen. Allen was also a senior last season so it isn’t as if he had the option to return anyway, but that does not take away from the impact he had on this team. The point guard averaged 9.8 PPG and 4.0 RPG, but where he really shined was his on ball pressure, leading the team with 1.6 SPG. Tack on the losses of Kobi Simmons and Chance Comanche who left early for the draft and you have a pretty significant burden put on your roster for the upcoming season. So why then is everyone so high on Arizona?
Well first let’s look at the five star center and (at one point) top recruit of his class: DeAndre Ayton. Ayton shocked many when he announced his intent to play for Sean Miller over the likes of Kentucky and Kansas. At 7’0 220lb DeAndre will be a good size replacement for Markkanen in a Wildcats team that is in some need of help down low. However Ayton is not a traditional Center and could easily move to PF if Miller chooses, which would allow him to utilize his jump shot more.
One place Arizona isn’t lacking is its backcourt. The addition of SG Brandon Rudolph out of Yonkers is a nice surprise as well. Ranked 37 overall in ESPN’s Top 100, Rudolph is one of the hottest three point shooters in the incoming class. He can hit the long ball in almost any fashion whether he’s pulling up, coming off a screen, or in transition. While he can be streaky at times, expect Rudolph to be one of the more impactful point scorers coming in with this new class for the Wildcats.
The returning pieces for Arizona are the reason they are considered one of the best teams in the country. The breakout star for the team this season will be Allonzo Trier who had to sit out the beginning of the season in 2016 due to NCAA rules violations. However in the 18 games he did play Trier was the team’s leading scorer with 17.2 PPG. SG Rawle Alkins also returns after withdrawing from the 2017 draft, but after undergoing surgery in September he is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season.
Arizona hasn’t seen a title since 1997, nor a Final Four since 2001, but all in all this is the most talented Arizona roster Miller has ever had. If Ayton can control the paint leaving Trier and Rudolph open in the backcourt, this should be a great season for the Wildcats. It is going to be a hell of a season for Arizona fans to watch and the best opportunity for them to win a title in twenty years.