Approaching mid-December, the Arizona Wildcats are 8-2, with a quality win to start the season over then-No. 12 Michigan State. After losses to Butler and Gonzaga, Arizona itself sits ranked as the 20th team in the country.
Entering the season, this Arizona squad was supposed to be one of the better teams in the country thanks to a versatile returning crew, buoyed by a talented freshmen class. Upperclassmen like Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Kadeem Allen, and Dusan Ristic were the blocks, held together by young glue.
Instead, through ten games of the 2016-17 season, the veterans have been sidekicks. Sophomore Allonzo Trier is still stuck on the bench thanks to eligibility issues, and the Wildcats have been carried by their freshmen.
The freshman class was expected to be good. Getting quality production out of it is not a surprise. However, no one was sure the kids would be this good this fast. The class was headlined by three five-star recruits: Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, and Rawle Alkins. Ray Smith would also be considered like an incoming freshman after missing all of 2015-16 with a knee injury. Then Smith went down again with another knee injury, the latest forcing him to retire from basketball before his career got going. That left the pressure on the threesome of Markkanen, Simmons, and Alkins.
Thus far, they are thriving under that pressure. They currently rank one, two, and three on the Wildcats in scoring and are the only players on the team averaging double figures. Markkanen also leads the team in rebounds, threes, and free throws, while shooting an insane 51.9 percent from the floor. It seems well-deserving that he is being talked about as a possible first-round NBA draft pick in 2017.
What Markkanen does well is obvious. He is seven feet tall with three-point range. He fits the prototypical stretch forward role and does so splendidly. The fact that he is shooting this well from three is nice, but that he is shooting so accurately from everywhere is what makes him unguardable right now. He isn't an elite rim protector in the paint at his size, but that will come. He already has pro experience, having played in FIBA leagues and tournaments internationally for Finland. As he adds strength, the ability to play outside the three-point line offensively and inside the paint defensively will come to fruition.
Alkins is a good shooter in his own right, albeit at a normal size for a wing. He is also rebounding well from the perimeter. Simmons completes the trio, as he is also able to knock down threes, can play both on and off the ball, and possesses great size and length for a guard.
With Smith and Trier out, and an injury to Jackson-Cartwright in early December, Arizona has been forced to rely on guys the team probably hoped to ease into the college basketball game. Instead, it has been those freshmen carrying the team.