This time last year the discussion amongst Arizona Wildcats fans was that it final four or bust. With a freshman class that was ranked third in the nation headlined by Grant Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Gabe York the expectations were set high by fans and coaches.
Let’s not forget about how regarded these true freshman were in the rankings. Jerrett was ranked the second best power forward in the 2012 class. The number one power forward ended up becoming the top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Tarczewski was ranked the third best center behind Nerlens Noel and Isaiah Austin. Brandon Ashley was the third best power behind Anthony Bennett and Jerrett. Noel and Bennett were lottery picks, while Austin has the potential as well.
Arizona also brought in a high flying shooting guard by the name of Gabe York. While his ranking was not as high as Jerrett, Tarczewski and Ashley, he was still highly regarded as UA needed another shooter on our young team.
What the class rankings don’t include are transfers and last year the Wildcats hit the lottery when Xavier combo guard Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona in desperate need of a point guard. Under Lyons, the Wildcats got off to a hot start. However, this year the Wildcats are off to another hot start. The Wildcats are currently 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. There are a lot of similarities between this year’s team compared to last year’s squad.
However, the question that is being imposed is what is different about this year’s team compared to last year’s team?
Let’s remember the chemistry makeup behind last year’s squad. Heading into last season, the Wildcats lost six members (seven if you really want to include Sidiki Johnson) to graduation or transfers. Those six guys included Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry, Josiah Turner, Brandon Lavender, Kryrl Natyazhko and Alex Jacobson.
Last year was also the first year that everyone on the basketball team was recruited by Sean Miller. Miller finally had his team and not somebody else’s. Miller’s team was led by seniors Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom who combined for 37.3 points per game. To make that number sound more important, Lyons and Hill were first and second in scoring while Parrom was fourth in scoring. With these seniors getting the bulk of the scoring, the rest of the team was built around undeveloped freshmen and a sophomore named Nick Johnson.
We all know what happened last year, the Cats ended up sliding in January but made a nice run in the NCAA Tournament before losing a heart breaker to Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
Meanwhile, flash forward to this season. The Wildcats lost Lyons, Hill, Parrom, Jerrett and Angelo Chol. However, the Wildcats still had valuable options on the team as well as another incoming freshman class led by Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how Arizona brought in high profile freshman and a senior combo guard. However, what I failed to mention is the guy who is behind Arizona’s success this year. The person that I am mentioning is TJ McConnell and in my opinion McConnell has been the best player on our team this year.
McConnell sat out last year after transferring from Duquesne but was able to practice with the Wildcats. Therefore, McConnell was able to learn Miller’s system and play with some of the most talented athletes that he has ever played with.
This year the Wildcats are led by a true point guard, perhaps the first real point guard under Miller’s regime. What makes this team better than last year’s team is that they all have a year under Miller’s belt. Granted, it also helps having a McDonald’s All-American (Hollis-Jefferson) unselfishly coming off your bench to play valuable minutes.
One of the biggest improvements over last year’s squad is that the Wildcats have no problem getting rebounds. Whether it’s offensive rebounding or defensive rebounding, the Wildcats are making sure that the opponents aren’t getting the ball.
The Wildcats have the assets to compete for a National Championship this year. Will the Wildcats lose a game this year? Absolutely, running the table doesn’t happen it today’s world of parity in college hoops. It is almost impossible these days for a team to go undefeated. The Wildcats have a target on their back right now being ranked the number one team in college basketball.
The Pac-12 has also improved this year. Oregon remains undefeated, Colorado knocked off the Kansas Jayhawks just last week and UCLA gives Arizona problems every year.
Arizona is about three weeks away from the start of Pac-12 play but for now Arizona has two more games before holiday break.
Anything can happen in college basketball, however right now Arizona Wildcat fans are left drooling after the recent performances of the No. 1 team in college basketball.