The Arizona Wildcats enter the 2016-17 season with the usual top-notch talent but with an unfortunate amount of questions as well.
The Cats’ biggest question mark is depth. Arizona once was thought to have one of the deepest rosters in the country. That depth has taken several blows. First was Terrance Ferguson’s decision to opt for Australia instead of Tucson. Then Ray Smith’s third torn ACL in the last 30 months. And Chance Comanche’s academic suspension, though word has come out that Comanche could be cleared to play in this Friday’s season opener against the Michigan State Spartans.
That fact leads us to the biggest and most awkward question mark of all: Allonzo Trier.
Mum’s the word, thus far, on the status of Trier, perhaps Arizona’s best player for this upcoming season. Just a whole lot of “No comment” and “No doesn’t mean maybe” when it comes to what we can expect from Allonzo Trier this season.
Even with all those questions marks, Tucson can’t help but have high expectations for their Wildcats. A recruiting class led by Finnish big man, Lauri Markkanen, and five-star guards Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons have fans thinking about those extremely athletic Elite Eight teams of 2014 and 2015.
The general expectation, or at least hope, is that, on this, the 20th anniversary season of Arizona’s lone National Championship and a year where the Final Four will be held in their home-state at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, the stars are aligned. This is the year that Arizona’s Final Four drought will end.
That’s not out of the question. But the road is awfully tough. Along with the question marks, this is the first time in several years that Arizona is not expected to win the Pac-12. Arizona’s recruiting class is very good, but there are other incoming freshmen around the conference that are just as good, if not better.
The sky is still the limit for this year’s Wildcats. But, even right at home in the Pac-12, before they can even think about March, they’ll have to fight for everything. So let’s go through a rundown of what they have to deal with in the Pac-12 this year.
There’s no question that the Oregon Ducks are the favorite to win the Pac-12. They’re coming off a Pac-12 championship in both the regular season and the conference tournament and they’re returning just about everybody.
Their best player, Dillon Brooks, will miss some time at the beginning of the season after a foot surgery that has sidelined him since the beginning of the summer. Brooks will be back soon and on top of him, they’re bringing back sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey, who got better and better as last year went on. They also have expected Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, junior forward Chris Boucher, back in the fold.
This team was a 1-seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and one has to think that they will be in the mix for that spot yet again. Head coach Dana Altman had his entire squad maxing out their potential last year. If he can do that again, they could be the biggest threat to the preseason number one Duke Blue Devils in March.
THE No. 1 PICK IN NEXT YEAR’S NBA DRAFT
The Pac-12 has plenty of star potential. In addition to the aforementioned Trier and Brooks, both Pac-12 Player of the Year candidates, the California Golden Bears are returning their big man, Ivan Rabb, for his sophomore season. Rabb could perhaps be the best player in the conference, looking to build on a successful freshman campaign where he averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 61% shooting from the floor.
But the stars don’t end there. There are a few freshmen who look forward to showcasing their potential on the Pac-12’s stage. The UCLA Bruins’ new point guard, Lonzo Ball, certainly comes to mind. He was the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and averaged a triple-double in his senior year of high school.
But, perhaps, no one’s star shines brighter than the Washington Huskies’ new leading man, Markelle Fultz.
Fultz, a 6-foot-4 McDonald’s All-American point guard, is receiving high praise from every direction. He’s already garnering attention as being the front-runner to be the number one pick in next year’s NBA Draft after stealing the show at this year’s FIBA U18 games. He’s even drawn lofty comparisons such as, “Dwyane Wade with a jumpshot”. That sounds scary.
Oh, and he does this:
How Markelle Fultz warms up for an exhibition game. pic.twitter.com/e1bBJtksbe— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) November 4, 2016
The Wildcats will see Fultz twice this season. January 29 in McKale Center and February 18 in Seattle.
TEAM ON THE RISE
Three years ago, Andy Enfield was coming off a successful stint as the Mayor of Dunk City, having led Florida Gulf Coast University to the Sweet Sixteen and then signed a six-year deal to be the head coach of the USC Trojans.
It took a couple years, but Enfield has brought a similar level of excitement to Los Angeles. His teams combined for only five conference victories in his first two years but last year, with a talented roster, the Trojans broke through for nine conference wins, were 21-13 overall, and made an NCAA Tournament appearance.
While they lose their assist leader in Julian Jacobs, the Trojans have junior guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart as well as sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright, all returning and improved. Enfield’s system is about his players having fun and scoring in bunches. Based on last year’s emergence into March and so many of the pieces returning, these Trojans are geared up to have fun and win a bunch of games.
TEAM ON THE DECLINE
Larry Krystkowiak has accomplished a lot in his five years with the Utah Utes. Utah has won at least 21 games in each of the last three years. The last two years, Utah has totaled 26 Pac-12 wins and a pair of second place conference finishes.
Those teams were led by the likes of Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and Brandon Taylor. All those guys are either playing in the NBA or have graduated by now. If the Utes don’t get someone unexpected to step up, they could be looking at their first down year since 2012-13.
Both senior guard Lorenzo Bonam and junior forward Kyle Kuzma averaged over ten points a game last season. Their experience mixed with the underrated coaching of Krystkowiak will result in Utah being competitive as usual. But making the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive year will be a tough task for the Utes.
DATES TO WATCH OUT FOR
December 30 - Arizona @ California - The Wildcats kick off conference play in Haas Pavilion. Two of the last three years, Arizona has dropped games in Berkeley in heartbreaking fashion. Markkanen versus Rabb will be a matchup to watch.
February 4 - Arizona @ Oregon - I’m fairly certain that every Wildcat fan remembers the Ducks bringing Arizona’s 49-game home win streak to a screeching halt last season. Super Bowl weekend will be the only regular season encounter between these two and I’m sure every returning Wildcat will remember last year too and have revenge on their minds.
March 1 - Washington @ UCLA - Okay, no, Arizona isn’t involved in this one. But if you’re a basketball fan, you’re going to want to watch Fultz versus Ball. Quite possibly the two best freshman point guards in the nation squaring off in the last week of the regular season. That’s appointment television.