While Arizona has typically benefitted from experienced senior leaders on Sean Miller’s teams, the 2016-17 iteration of the Wildcats will have a different look than we’re used to. With seven underclassman that figure to play significant roles in the rotation, Arizona is in the midst of a youth movement.
Of course, the Wildcats return senior Kadeem Allen, who played 34 games last season and started nearly all of them. But Allen has just one year of Division I experience under his belt, and is still learning how to effectively play the point and shooting guard positions.
Arizona will also have a star junior in Dusan Ristic, who may be one of the most talented post scorers in the country. But Ristic’s minutes have been limited over his first two seasons, and he may not be the vocal leader that the team rallies around.
Besides those two upperclassmen, Miller will rely heavily on freshmen and sophomores.
That group is clearly headlined by sophomore Allonzo Trier, who opted to return to Arizona over entering the 2016 NBA Draft. Behind a fiery on court demeanor and explosive scoring potential, Trier is the most likely candidate to emerge as the team’s leader and nucleus on offense.
The Wildcats will rely heavily on Trier’s offense and emotion, but they will also be getting major contributions from the freshman class.
Perhaps the most important member of that class is Ray Smith, a redshirt freshman that missed last season due to a knee injury. At 6-8, Smith can play the small forward position but can also slide to the power forward in a small-ball type lineup.
Smith’s versatility will be critical for Arizona, as will his experience with Miller’s system and standards. Watching from the bench for a year allowed Smith to view the game from a different perspective, and he should be more prepared for success on the court as a result.
Arizona’s backcourt also gets a major boost from the freshmen, which include guards Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins, and Terrance Ferguson.
Simmons is an electric point guard with great height at 6-5, and he brings a dynamic element to the floor. While it may take Simmons some time to adjust to the college game, don’t be surprised if he eventually pushes senior Kadeem Allen from the starting point guard position. Simmons has a rare combination of size, speed, and athleticism, so his potential at the college level is sky high.
At 6-4 and 200 pounds, Alkins is a physical force who could also become a lockdown defender. His frame gives him the potential to guard three positions on the floor, which is something Miller has coveted in his wing rotation. Alkins could see time at the shooting guard and small forward positions, and will likely play a significant role for his strength and toughness.
And with Terrance Ferguson also in the mix, Arizona is loaded with star players at the guard and wing positions. A 6-7 sharpshooter with elite athleticism, Ferguson is the perfect compliment to Allonzo Trier on offense. While Trier makes defenses collapse with his elite slashing ability, Ferguson could benefit from open looks from the three point line.
Ferguson is also a terror in transition, flying up the court for a dizzying array of dunks. Like Trier, he can be unstoppable at times when he is unleashed in the open court. This should give Arizona’s fast break a huge boost.
Ferguson also possesses serious defensive potential, which should keep him on the floor and make him a vital component on both sides of the ball. Look for Ferguson to push for a starting position from day one and be Arizona’s top perimeter threat next season.
Finnish post player Lauri Markkanen is the freshman that gets the least publicity, but he might actually have the most polished game heading into next year. Markkanen is incredibly mobile at 6-11, and has the ability to stretch the floor with his shooting ability.
As it stands now, Arizona has just 3 true post players on the roster in Ristic, Markkanen, and sophomore Chance Comanche. That means Markkanen could be heavily involved in the post rotation, either as depth behind the returning players or even as the starting power forward alongside Ristic. A Markkanen/Ristic frontcourt not only has great size, but both of them can make defenses pay from inside and out, which would make Arizona incredibly difficult to guard.
Comanche is another option at the starting power forward position, as he showed great upside in his freshman year when given opportunities. Comanche’s athleticism and shot blocking will be critical for the interior defense, and he may be required to become the team’s primary rim protector.
All three of Arizona’s big men are able to run the court, which gives the Wildcats some intriguing transition potential. With those post players and a stable of athletic wings and guards, we could be in store for one of the more transition heavy teams of the Miller era.
While the rotation remains fluid, it is apparent that the younger players are going to be a huge part of the team’s identity. With this year’s group of youngsters, that’s an exciting prospect. They have off the charts potential and appear to have complimentary skill sets, which means Arizona’s ceiling as a team is very high.
As with any young team, though, there will be growing pains. It may take the Wildcats some time to gel, as they will be one of the least experienced teams in the Pac-12. And with so many players learning on the fly, we should expect some speed bumps. But with such a huge injection of talent, Arizona’s young players give the program a National Championship trajectory.