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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Dominant front court key to Arizona basketball success

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Kyle Hansen

Arizona men’s basketball forwards Brandon Ashley (left) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (right) laugh during a timeout during Arizona’s 80-52 victory over Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament championship game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on March 14. Hollis-Jefferson and Ashley comprise half of Arizona’s starting frontcourt players.

Arizona men’s basketball’s starting lineup is arguably one of the best in the country and one of the most difficult to match up. With one guard, three forwards and a center, four of which are 6-foot-7 or taller, Arizona is opposing coaches’ nightmare.

While many have praised the Wildcats’ backcourt this season, the frontcourt has been shining right with them, as the four standouts all have the chance to go to the NBA.

Take Arizona’s most deadly weapon, Stanley Johnson, to start with. Former NBA All-Star Reggie Miller even compared “Stanimal” to LeBron James after commenting on a highlight dunk in Arizona’s second round game in the NCAA Tournament.

The comparison is not far off, as Johnson even trash-talked James at his offseason skills camp.

“I’ve never played with a guy as talented as Stanley,” Arizona guard T.J. McConnell said. “Stanley does it all. The LeBron James comparison — I think Stanley has a long way to go to ever be compared to LeBron James. I know if he works hard, he could have a very long career in the NBA.”

If he executes, Johnson could be the pit bull that Miller has searched for and missed out on in late tournament games over the past couple seasons.

Twice this season, Johnson has struggled shooting, and the Wildcats struggled in turn. But even McConnell believes Johnson might be the answer to Miller’s Final Four dilemma.

“When I first saw him, I was like, ‘There’s no way that kid is a freshman,’” McConnell said to Sports Illustrated. “He’s a genetic freak. I thought he might be the answer to us getting to a Final Four. Then I saw him play and, yep, he’s definitely the answer. I mean, he’s basically unguardable.”

Anchoring the head of the Arizona frontcourt is center Kaleb Tarczewski. The junior center from Claremont, N.H., has improved off the charts over the last three seasons.

His points per game has increased by 2.6 points from his first season, and his physical presence on the boards has improved.

The Wildcat big men are anchored and led by Arizona graduate manager Joseph Blair. Besides being a comedic clown off the court, Blair has made Tarczweski into the physical specimen he is today.

Brandon Ashley has come alive this season after his injury that took him out of play against California on February 1, 2014. The Pac-12 tournament MOP is averaging 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks with three 20-point games over his last seven games, according to a tweet from Arizona Basketball.

“We were a man short last year with Brandon going down,” Miller said to the Pac-12 Networks. “Can you imagine Brandon playing like this on last year’s team, what we could have done? Nobody knows that more than him.”

That thought will stick out in Ashley’s mind and may be the inspiration he needs to hear. When you think about the recovery process and how long he has remained patient, nobody wants to get past the Elite Eight more than he does.

Versatile small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has the ability to score quickly and gets his teammates going.

The fourth backup at point guard feeds the ball well, and even when he struggled shooting against Ohio State, the forward from Chester, Pa., could still make beautiful behind-the-back passes to his teammates.

“I know I rub off on the guys; I have that impact on them,” Hollis-Jefferson said after the NCAA Tournament win against Texas Southern. “No matter what, I try to bring that, whether it’s 7 in the morning, 8 at night, I just try to be the same way. But sometimes, it’s a little tough to rub off on guys when they’re a certain way, but I just try my best.”

But Hollis-Jefferson’s real skill on the court is his defense.

He has the ability to guard pretty much anyone on the floor, from point guards all the way up to power forwards, similar to his former Arizona teammate, Aaron Gordon.

“He’s the type of guy you can put on the floor in the NBA, and [he’ll] guard multiple positions and impact the game on the defensive end without really having to score,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said to “The Brad Cesmat Show.” “He will be a valuable piece to a really good team in the NBA.”

The last piece of the puzzle to the Arizona frontcourt is Dusan Ristic. Although the Serbian backup center plays only 8.9 minutes per game, he provides another 7-foot player with killer post moves.

These five pieces will be the key to Arizona basketball’s success for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.

Sure, McConnell runs the team at point and shooters like Elliott Pitts and Gabe York will need to make 3-pointers, but this frontcourt can and truly does have the potential to outmaneuver Kentucky.

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Follow Matt Wall on Twitter.

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