The No. 2 ranked Arizona Wildcats officially begin their quest towards a national title on Friday night as they host Mount St. Mary’s.
Expectations have never been higher in Tucson, as media pundits across the country have Arizona penciled in as a favorite to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis and compete for a championship.
However, the Wildcats looked miles away from being one of the nation’s best teams in their opening exhibition game against Cal Poly Pomona on Sunday. Arizona looked sluggish offensively for most of the first half before they pulled away later on.
Playing against a Mount St. Mary’s team coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years, Arizona can ill afford to get off to another slow start, although this one shouldn’t be very close for long.
Arizona’s frontcourt of Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley should overwhelm Mount St. Mary’s and other low-major opponents. There’s simply no playbook for banging down low with two likely first-round NBA draft picks.
The task becomes increasingly more difficult when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and freshman phenom Stanley Johnson are thrown into the mix. Hollis-Jefferson’s tenacious defense will likely wear down the Mount St. Mary’s wings while Johnson brings the type of offensive aggressiveness that Arizona fans have not seen in a long time.
Whether Johnson is in the starting lineup is still to be determined by head coach Sean Miller, who brought the 6’7 forward off the bench in Sunday’s exhibition.
Arizona does not have a ton of depth, although Elliott Pitts should see considerable playing time and center Dusan Ristic has been a bit of a nice surprise in terms of his offensive development.
The Mountaineers may nonetheless provide some challenge in the paint, as they have 10 players 6’6 or taller, including sophomore Will Miller. Head coach Jamion Christian told Blue Ribbon Magazine that Miller is “the best shooter in the country.”
Miller only averaged 5.6 ppg as a freshman but knocked down five three-pointers against Michigan State last season.
As a team, the Mountaineers are in major rebuilding mode after losing not one, but three 1,000 point scorers to graduation. Not one returning player on their roster averaged double digits last season.
Even if Mount St. Mary’s hangs around for a little like Cal Poly Pomona did, their lack of experience will more than likely catch up with them.
For Arizona, the winning margin is what people will take note of nationally but how the Wildcats look on offense may be more telling than the final outcome.
Miller’s teams always take a while to gel but with so much talent, particularly in the starting five, the Wildcat faithful will have little patience for offensive struggles.