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The Daily Wildcat

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Column: Arizona basketball has much easier path with release of new schedule

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Tyler Baker

Arizona then-freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson walks out on the court before the Pac-12 Conference championship against UCLA at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Hollis-Jefferson figures to have an increased role this season as the Wildcats look to top last season’s 33-5 record.

After the Arizona men’s basketball team released its 2014-15 complete schedule Monday night, I have no doubt that this season’s schedule will be easier than last season’s. A couple of the nonconference opponents from last season are back this year, but there really aren’t any marquee road games.

Last season’s noncon schedule was highlighted by wins at San Diego State, Michigan and a neutral site win over Duke at Madison Square Garden. In terms of tough environments, it doesn’t get much tougher than that three-game stretch.

This season, the Wildcats’ nonconference schedule is highlighted by home games against Gonzaga, Michigan and a potential Maui Invitational matchup with San Diego State. While all three teams are quality opponents and will all be ranked to start the year, facing the toughest noncon opponents at home and on neutral sites will not sit well with the NCAA selection committee.

When you look at last season’s regular season results, Arizona’s tournament resume was defined by those early season wins in hostile environments over teams that were eventually seeded highly in the 2014 NCAA tournament.

This season, Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller and company simply won’t have the opportunity to add those signature type wins before Pac-12 Conference play begins.

Speaking of Pac-12 play, much of the same schedule rolls over from last season. The Wildcats play ASU, Oregon, Oregon State, California, Stanford, Utah and Colorado twice this year in the traditional home-and-home matchup.

The changes come when you consider that Arizona no longer plays each conference opponent twice a year, as it did in the Pac-10 days. The newer format has Arizona playing Washington, Washington State, UCLA and USC only once this year, with the Washington schools on the road and the Southern California teams at home.

Last season’s road win at UCLA was a hard-fought victory and looked great for its tournament resume. Not having to go to UCLA this season is bad for its resume but great for Arizona’s win-loss record.

When looking at the entirety of the schedule and comparing it to other top teams, there are some similarities. Traditional powerhouses like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas all play significant home or neutral site games, which is good news for Miller.

The advantage those teams have over Arizona are more talent-rich conferences. Kentucky will face Florida twice in the SEC; Duke will see North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia each twice in the ACC; and Kansas has Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma each twice in the Big-12.

A myriad of significant departures from the Pac-12 points to UCLA, Oregon, California, Colorado and Stanford all being worse off than last season. These teams lost players like Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Mike Moser (Oregon), Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado), Justin Cobbs (California), Richard Solomon (California), Dwight Powell (Stanford) and Josh Huestis (Stanford).

For those who don’t know, these were all critical starters from each of the aforementioned Pac-12 teams, and they are all gone now. While the conference will still be solid overall, the Pac-12 is significantly diminished talent-wise from last season and will likely not have another powerhouse team other than Arizona this season.

The only consolation is that Arizona is projected to be a top-five team, so maybe the selection committee will cut it some slack because of its talent.

The Wildcats return five players with starting experience, four of which racked up double-digit starts, and another top-10 recruiting class. If they are to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2001, the easier schedule makes this year the perfect season to do it.

—Follow Roberto Payne @HouseofPayne555

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