No. 12 Arizona poised to reclaim its spot among college basketball's elite programs
TUCSON, Ariz. – Claims of Arizona's return to prominence last season turned out to be a bit premature, derailed by injuries, suspensions and unfulfilled promise.
There's no reason to think it'll happen again this year.
With another stellar recruiting class by coach Sean Miller, a transfer guard who could be a star and a talented core of returning players, the Wildcats appear ready to re-claim their spot among the college basketball elite.
And not just for this season.
The way Miller has built the program during his three years in the desert, Arizona, ranked No. 12 in the AP preseason Top 25, is set up to be good for the long haul.
"I believe with the talent level that we have on this year's team, some of the experience that we combine with it, we are positioned to be good and to do great things," Miller said. "What those are though, I don't know yet."
Expectations were high at Arizona last season after the Wildcats came within a few seconds of the Final Four the year before and Miller added a stellar four-player recruiting class.
The projections fell short.
Point guard Jordin Mayes was bothered by a nagging foot injury and forward Kevin Parrom wasn't the same player he was the year before after being shot and losing both his mother and grandmother just before the season.
Freshman forward Sidiki Johnson left the team in December and point guard Josiah Turner was suspended twice before transferring at the end of the season.
The Wildcats won 23 games, but missed the NCAA tournament and finished off the season with a big thud, losing to Bucknell at home in the opening game of the NIT.
Expectations are again up there this season, though they seem to be a little more on target.
A master recruiter, Miller again pulled together one of the best classes in the country, a group that includes four of the best incoming big men in the country.
Athletic guard Nick Johnson and physical forward Angelo Chol, two of the four players from Miller's previous recruiting class, are back. Parrom and Mayes are both healthy and forward Solomon Hill, an All-Pac-12 player last season, moves to his natural position of small forward.
If that wasn't enough, the Wildcats brought in point guard Mark Lyons.
A graduate of Xavier, Lyons has a year of eligibility left after helping the Musketeers reach the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Quick, heady and a good finisher at the rim, not to mention a strong on-the-ball defender, he could end up being one of the best transfers in college basketball this season, a player who could put the Wildcats over the top.
"Adding him to our team is very unique because he is a talented player, but the experience I described (three trips to Sweet 16) is really difficult to put into words," Miller said. "He gives us competitiveness, toughness and he's been in the arena in a big game."
The other four newcomers aren't bad, either.
One of Arizona's weaknesses last season was its lack of depth in the frontcourt.
It should become a strength this season with the addition of 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-10 forward Grant Jerrett and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley.
All four are athletic and versatile, giving the Wildcats a revolving door of big men who can swap in and out — with the 6-9 Chol — without a fear of them getting tired or a drop-off in talent.
They also should benefit Hill, who has played out of position pretty much since high school. Often matched up against bigger opponents his first three seasons at Arizona, he can now shift from the bruising blocks toward the perimeter, where he can better utilize his shooting touch, passing and ability to beat players off the dribble.
"It's always great to have depth," Hill said. "That's the reason we were successful two years ago and the reason we'll be successful this year."
Unlike last season, the Wildcats have reason to believe claims like that are legit.