After earning their share of postseason awards and accolades, the Wildcats are now being picked by several news outlets as the preseason Number 1 for 2014-2015. Although this recognition generates excitement for the program, team members and fans alike realize that the only ranking which matters will come at the end of next season.
With all his success, Sean Miller seems to be hitting his head on a personal glass ceiling. In his 10 seasons as a head coach, he has led his teams to a remarkable five Sweet Sixteen appearances and three Elite Eights, but has yet to break through to the Final Four. Regardless of the likely departure of Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, Miller’s team is loaded with talent and experience.
As the latest March Madness proved, however, talent and experience are not always enough. Who would have thought at the beginning of the tournament that Michigan State and Florida would be watching the National Championship game from the sidelines?
Although success for the Cats is not guaranteed, there are several factors that could make a difference between standing on a podium in Lucas Oil Stadium on April 6, 2015 and watching the final game from home. Here are four major ones:
Of the two teams that just played for the national championship, UConn had 10 players averaging more than eight minutes a game (eight of whom averaged at least 13) and Kentucky had nine. After Brandon Ashley’s injury on February 1, Arizona had only seven, with Elliott Pitts averaging exactly eight minutes.
Miller relied almost exclusively on six guys, none of whom played fewer than 20 minutes a game. In this regard, Miller could take a page from his younger brother’s playbook. Archie Miller’s Dayton Flyers had 12 guys who averaged at least seven minutes per game, with no player getting more than 30.
The Free Throw Line
We are all familiar with the free throw shooting woes of this year’s Wildcats, who averaged a dismal 66 percent from the line. The misery was led by Aaron Gordon’s spectacularly awful 42%, which makes Shaquille O’Neal look more like Steve Nash.
Poor free throw shooting was a contagion that spread even to the unlikeliest team members. Somehow, T. J. McConnell’s FT percentage fell off from a strong 84% during at Duquesne in 2011-12 to a mediocre 62% this past season. And how much does free throw shooting matter? Just consider that in this year’s National Championship game, UConn shot 100% (10-10) from the line. Kentucky? Only 54% (13-24). John Calipari’s players missed key free throws in the last five minutes that cost his team the game and the championship.
One of the big questions to be answered this fall concerns Brandon Ashley’s foot. Can he return to his pre-injury form? Before he went down, Ashley was an absolute monster, averaging nearly 12 points and six rebounds in 28 minutes and creating problems defensively with his length inside. He was also one of the team’s best shooters (52% from the field, 76% from the line, and 38% from three-point range).
With Ashley in the lineup, the Cats were a perfect 21-0; without him, a solid but not stellar 12-5. Assuming he does come back to full strength and that the rest of the players can stay healthy, next year’s team should be formidable.
But as we learned this past season, health is never guaranteed. Kansas showed in this year’s tournament that an injury to one key player (Joel Embiid, in the Jayhawks’ case) can eliminate even one of the nation’s most talented teams from contention.
In his tenure at Arizona, Miller has always managed to have an abundance of strong, capable small forwards. During his first four years, he had the luxury of starting Solomon Hill and bringing Kevin Parrom off the bench. Last season’s team, prior to Ashley’s injury, was even more impressive, with Gordon starting and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson playing plenty of minutes as the team’s sixth man.
If both Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson head to the NBA, that would leave exactly one prototypical wing player on the team in Stanley Johnson. Unless Miller brings in another player at that position, Pitts might have to step into the role of backup small forward, which is not his natural position and could result in an undersized lineup. However, if Hollis-Jefferson returns as PGU expects, the Cats will once again be loaded on the wing.
Given all of the Wildcats’ strengths, it is hard to imagine that anything could keep them out of next season’s Final Four. This may be the year that Miller breaks through his glass ceiling. As with any other type of success, an NCAA championship will require not just talent, dedication, chemistry, and confidence. There is also an element of luck involved.
It will be interesting to see if all the pieces fall into place so that the 2014-15 preseason Number 1 can maintain that ranking at the end of the season.