It’s no secret that Arizona will field a lineup of elite athletes, with three players posting 40+ inch max vertical leaps in recent workouts. And while fans are rightfully looking forward to the highlight reel potential, the real benefit of a roster with this level of athleticism is the versatility and flexibility it affords coach Sean Miller when preparing for opponents.
For the second season in a row, Arizona enters the year with one of the best frontcourts in the nation. While that’s been a rarity throughout Wildcat history, it’s becoming the norm with Miller at the helm. Miller loves hybrid forwards that cause mismatches, and that’s exactly what sophomore Brandon Ashley is. With the ability to finish inside and draw his defender out of the paint, Ashley’s mobility and craftiness down low were on display last year.
But this year he’ll have two major changes to his role. Ashley will be asked to shoot more and extend the range on his jumpshot, giving center Kaleb Tarczewski more room to exploit his size on the interior.
And with the departures of post players Grant Jerrett and Angelo Chol, suddenly Ashley might be called on to play backup minutes at the center position. Junior Matt Korcheck and sophomore Zach Peters are potential contributors at center (pending Peters’ NCAA eligibility waiver), but if Tarczewski gets in foul trouble late or if Miller wants to play a smaller lineup, don’t be surprised if Ashley holds things down at the five for stretches.
Freshman Aaron Gordon is another forward who gives Miller versatility, with his ability to play power forward and small forward. Gordon is more than capable of playing in the paint, where he can use his physical gifts to punish defenders.
But, like Ashley, Gordon has another dimension that allows him to fill multiple roles. With a budding perimeter game, Gordon is a good ball handler and passer, but more importantly he has the instincts to survive on the outside. And at 6-foot-8, Gordon has the height to see over defenses. There will be some initial growing pains as he adjusts to the new position, but Gordon could develop into play maker from the high post because of his height and emerging perimeter skills.
While Gordon typically gets the spotlight when it comes to the freshmen, there’s no player on the roster more versatile than fellow newcomer Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The 6’7 forward can play inside or out just like Gordon, but what makes Hollis-Jefferson truly special is his defensive versatility.
With long arms, quick feet, and active hands, Hollis-Jefferson can lock down opposing small forwards. But he also has the strength and athleticism to defend power forwards and mix it up down low. That alone is impressive, but Hollis-Jefferson’s absurd defensive ability goes on. Because of his tremendous lateral quickness and anticipation, Hollis-Jefferson frequently guarded opposing point guards in high school and even in international competition. There will be times next year when Hollis-Jefferson guards point guards, power forwards, and anyone in between.
It’s almost unfair that Arizona can deploy a disruptive defensive force like Hollis-Jefferson on the wing, and then put another lockdown defender like Nick Johnson next to him. Johnson already proved that he was among the nation’s premier defenders last year, but now that he has another ballhawk next to him, Arizona defenders will have full reign to switch on the perimeter.
It’s becoming an apparent trend that Miller wants to assemble players that can play multiple positions or execute multiple roles, and this season should be a shining example of that versatility on display. With the exception of Tarczewski and point guard TJ McConnell, nearly every other contributing player will be asked to play or defend multiple positions. A look ahead at some of the Wildcats’ recruiting targets echoes that thought as well.
Arizona won’t be defined by a particular starting unit, or by a star player. Instead, the 2013-14 incarnation of the Wildcats will be marked by versatility, and the ability to throw opponents different looks and adapt to matchups on the fly.