Key Returners: Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic
Key Losses: Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, Kadeem Allen, Chance Comanche, Ray Smith (retired)
Key Newcomers: DeAndre Ayton, Ira Lee, Emmanuel Akot, Brandon Randolph, Dylan Smith (UNC Asheville transfer), Alex Barcello
Postseason Projection: 1 seed
The annual script for Arizona basketball is starting to become rather predictable for Wildcat fans - an outstanding body of work overshadowed by a premature postseason exit. After taking care of business in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament back in March, Zona had what seemed to be a favorable draw heading into their Sweet-16 matchup against none other than Miller’s former employer, Xavier and former colleague, head coach Chris Mack. But when the Wildcats failed to hold a 7-point lead with under 3 minutes remaining, the Twitter trolls came to life to re-spark the [dumb and overplayed] narrative: "Will Sean Miller ever get over the [Final Four] hump”? The bullseye on Miller’s back – whether justified or not – should only get bigger this season, especially with the inventory of weapons he’ll have at his disposal. But to all the frustrated and impatient Wildcat fans out there, remember this: It took Mark Few 18 tries to get the "Final Four Media Monkey" off his back before Gonzaga finally broke through this year. Miller has been at Tucson for half as long and something tells me he won't need another decade to raise his first Final Four banner at the McKale Center.
Despite [questionable] early NBA draft declarations by Kobi Simmons and Chance Comanche over the summer, the Wildcats' talent pool will still be as stacked as ever. Miller and his staff hauled in five top-100 prospects in the 2017-18 recruiting cycle, giving Arizona a top-3 freshman class heading into the season. The most prominent catch was a 5-star, blue-chip monster in DeAndre Ayton, who some feel could blossom into the best player in this class. Ayton has all the physical tools one could ask for from a big man in the new age of “space and pace” basketball. Blessed with elite athleticism and a never-ending wingspan, Ayton will surely be the defensive anchor and primary shot blocker this season, a role that was completely vacant for the Wildcats a year ago (Zona’s team block rate ranked 179th nationally). Because of how dynamic the Finnish assassin Lauri Markkanen was on the offensive end of the floor last season, Miller was forced to feature lineups with gaping holes in rim protection, particularly when Markkanen played the 4 next to Dusan Ristic at the 5. Despite possessing an imposing 7’0 frame, Ristic wasn't even a top-3 shot blocker on his own team last year on a per minute basis. Depending on how Miller chooses to shake up the rotations, Ayton could very well be stealing the veteran Ristic’s minutes, especially if the Wildcats want to go "small" and maximize their floor spacing on the offensive end.
The arrival of two stud hybrid wing/power forwards in Ira Lee and Emmanuel Akot both project to be ideal fits at the 3/4 playing alongside Ayton and the position-less Rawle Alkins. Much like Ayton, Lee is an explosive athlete who will look to wreak havoc on and around the rim at any opportunity, whether it be slashing from the wing or rim running out in transition. Akot, on the other hand, is actually the higher ranked prospect according to most recruiting sites, but his game appears to be more perimeter-oriented and his relatively lean frame at 6’7, 180 pounds make him better suited for the 3 as opposed to the 4. Between Ristic, the three aforementioned freshmen, and stout defender Keanu Pinder, Miller will have some flexible matchup options at the 3/4/5 spots this season. And while none of these pieces are gifted with the offensive skill and long range shooting prowess that Markkanen brought to the table, the new look frontline unit should take a massive leap forward defensively.
Another critical need that Miller addressed through the recruiting channel was outside shooting - an under-the-radar achilles heel of recent Wildcat squads. After Gabe York’s graduation two seasons ago and Markkanen’s early NBA exit this summer, the returning roster was starving for proven, consistent 3-point shooting. In steps freshman Brandon Randolph, a rangy 6’6 guard/wing who is regarded as one of the best shot makers in his class and connected on over 40% of his 3s during the AAU circuit last season - he was also impressive in Arizona's recent 4-game exhibition tour in Spain. Miller also brought in a fringe top-100 prospect in Alex Borcello, who is tagged as a lead guard capable of making shots from all three levels on the floor. So while both Randolph and Borcello are much more dynamic than stand still shooters, their primary value as freshmen will be as floor spacers for the bonafide playmakers in Alkins and Allonzo Trier.
Rising senior Parker-Jackson Cartwright ("PJC") is a prototypical facilitator-first point guard and should fit like a glove playing alongside Trier and Alkins. After sharing the ball handling responsibilities with Kadeem Allen last year and backing up TJ McConnell two seasons ago, PJC should play big time minutes in his final collegiate season. And when Miller decides to run the offense through Trier & Alkins, PJC has shown he can be a reliable spot-up shooter from distance when needed - he's knocked down 40% of his 3s over the last two seasons.
Finally, a potential X-factor for the Wildcats looms in UNC-Asheville transfer Dylan Smith, who could emerge into an off-the-bench heat check weapon for this year's team. However, role-awareness will be critical for Smith, particularly when he shares the floor with Alkins and Trier. During Smith’s lone collegiate season in 2015-16, he wasted no time asserting himself as the alpha dog, posting UNC-Asheville’s highest usage rate (28%) as a freshman. He'll also need to improve his long range shooting consistency if he wants to be a valuable asset in an already crowded rotation (see Smith's 2015-16 shooting splits 0f 40/34/82 from 2pt/3pt/FT, respectively).
Bottom Line: The biggest shift in this team’s identity revolves around the departure and replacement of Markkanen. Just his presence on the floor created immense spacing and constant mismatch opportunities - but, a major byproduct of featuring him so frequently on the offensive end of the floor was that Zona was complacent to score in the half-court and rarely looked to push the pace out in the open floor. With an influx of athleticism at the forward spot (Akot, Lee and Ayton), look for Miller to release his young pack of gazelles out on the break in transition. This year should look more similar to Arizona’s 2014-15 squad (32nd fastest offensive tempo, per kenpom.com), which showcased a slightly smaller, but more fleet-of-foot front court with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson both getting run at the 4 position. The question is will the relatively raw Lee and Akot develop reliable enough jump-shooters in half-court settings to force opposing defenders out of the paint and create spacing for Trier and Alkins to attack.