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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona Wildcats basketball’s future is looking up

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Tyler Besh

When Sean Miller was hired as Arizona’s head coach in 2009, they said it would be a six-year rebuilding job.

In year two, he made it to the Elite Eight. In year four, he went to the Sweet Sixteen.

The best might be yet to come.

Next year, the fifth of the Sean Miller era, the Wildcats are as stacked as they have been since Lute Olson last patrolled the sidelines at McKale Center.

On Thursday, Ohio State ended the careers of seniors Solomon Hill, Mark Lyons and Kevin Parrom. But next year, Arizona only has one senior (Jordin Mayes), at least two impactful newcomers and four other contributing players returning from its Sweet Sixteen run.

“They’ll be back here next year,” Lyons said after the OSU loss. “I can bet on that.”

If this were the stock market, the Wildcats would be trending upward.

Here’s why:

Changing of the guard

Ohio State’s Aaron Craft might have been a nice preview of what’s to come for Arizona in the next two years when Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell takes the reins at Point Guard U.

Craft established himself as a leader, a top-notch defender and a true, pass-first point guard, otherwise known as the polar opposite of the score-first Lyons.

McConnell has the skillset to be that guy.

“He’s almost like an Aaron Craft-type player,” said center Kaleb Tarczewski. “He’s a good defender and he really creates for everyone else on the team. He’s a pass first point guard and that’s really going to help next year with regards to talent we have. So he’s going to be a great addition to the team.”

In his sophomore year at Duquesne in 2011-12, McConnell averaged 11.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game, connecting on 50.9 percent of his shots, 43.2 percent from 3-point range and 83.6 percent of his free throws. His numbers came against a weaker Atlantic 10 Conference than what he’ll see in the Pac-12, but with the Pac-12’s most talented roster surrounding him, he’ll be just fine.

McConnell sat out the 2012-13 season after transferring from Duquesne last year.

Nick Johnson

Johnson established himself as a leader as an underclassman, but he still had Hill and Lyons alongside him. Now it’s only him, and the Wildcats will only go as far as Johnson takes them.

He’s one of the Pac-12’s top on-ball defenders, but Arizona can’t afford a late-season slump like he had late in Pac-12 play when the Wildcats went 5-5 in a 10-game stretch. But when he is on, so are the Wildcats.

In the first eight games of Pac-12 play. Johnson flashed his potential in averaging 14.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 3-pointers per game. As Arizona’s No. 1 scoring option next year, he should be a Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate.

Johnson led Arizona in assists this year, but he won’t have to next year with McConnell coming in.

Dearth of bigs

Miller had a stable of four talented big men taller than 6-foot-8 (Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Angelo Chol) this season. Next year, he could have six.

Matt Korcheck, 6-foot-10 a transfer from Cochise College in Douglas, Ariz., joins the Wildcats next year. Also, Arizona is in the running for five-star power forward recruit Aaron Gordon, who is 6-foot-8.

In any event, Ashley, Tarczewski and Jerrett all showed flashes of potential throughout the season, and Tarczewski in particular toward the end of the year was impressive. The 7-footer averaged 7.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in the final month and shot 67 percent from the field. Ashley is widely considered the most talented — and best NBA prospect — of the bunch, and has the highest breakout potential for his sophomore season.

It remains to be seen if Chol will transfer with so much talent ahead of him on the depth chart, particularly if Gordon signs on with the UA.

Talent influx

It’s not quite the recruiting haul of a year ago, where Arizona had the No. 3-ranked class in the nation. But a five (small forward Rondae Jefferson) and four-star (guard Elliot Pitts) recruit is nothing be ashamed of.

Jefferson is a winner. He went 62-4 in his last two years at Chester High School, and he brings a similar skillset to that which Hill brought to the table for the UA. He’s a do-it-all small forward, and he averaged 15.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.4 blocks per game as a senior.

If the Wildcats do secure Gordon, however, the class jumps into the top 10 in the nation, because he is a game changer who has drawn comparisons to Los Angeles Clippers’ star Blake Griffin.

Gordon, ESPN’s 4th best recruit in the 2013 class, averaged 21.5 points, 16.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 3.7 assists per game in his senior season at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., and will make his college announcement before the McDonald’s All-Star Game on April 3. Oregon, Kentucky and Washington are the other candidates for his services.

The Wildcard

There just wasn’t playing time readily available for Gabe York this season. With Lyons, Parrom, Johnson and Jordin Mayes rotating in and out of the guard rotation, York was lost in the shuffle.

He played in 15 games, getting 2.4 points and 0.6 assists in 5.8 minutes per game. He had 20 DNPs and really only played when games were out of hand. But, with Parrom and Lyons graduating there should be a little bit of playing time to spare.

“Gabe will surprise a lot of people,” Lyons said. “He didn’t play a lot because of the older guys in front of him but he became great in practice. When he steps on the floor, he’ll be one of the guys that people wont be able to scout because they didn’t see him last year, but he’s gonna play hard.”

York was a four-star recruit coming out of Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif., where he became known for his highlight-reel dunks (even at 6-foot-1) and 3-point shooting.

— Zack Rosenblatt is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or via Twitter at @ZackBlatt.

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