The calendar has moved past Christmas, which means the college basketball world turns its eyes to conference play.
After putting up an 11-2 non-conference record, the Arizona Wildcats seemed to be hitting their stride just before the Christmas break. It was a 13 games that were filled with ups and downs, mass uncertainty, and pretty much every emotion possible for fans.
So what did we make of the non-conference? We discuss that here, and then go into Pac-12 expectations at the bottom:
Brandon Hill: My biggest takeaway is how important recruiting is. When you lack depth due to injuries or mysterious suspensions, it’s vital to have really, really good players on the floor. The “Big Three” freshmen -- Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins, and Kobi Simmons -- have been as good as advertised, particularly crucial because of the necessity of each playing more minutes and in larger roles than perhaps originally expected. I think Alkins in particular will be a key player going forward with his versatility. Also, because of roster uncertainty I think this team is still searching for its identity, which is somewhat unusual after 13 games.
David Potts: The freshman are very, very good. Arizona’s lack of depth has thrust Lauri, Rawle, and Kobi into the spotlight very quickly (those three actually lead the Wildcats in minutes), and all three have been tremendous. The biggest surprise, to me, is Kobi Simmons. Simmons is obviously a top recruit, but I viewed him as a guy who would take more time to develop than Lauri or Rawle. Instead, he’s averaging more than 12 points per game right off the bat and showing significant defensive potential, too. That all three, though, have contributed so heavily bodes well for the Wildcats going forward.
Ryan Kelapire: Sean Miller is a good coach. It would have been very easy for this team to come unglued with the injuries and suspensions, but this Wildcats team has held it together. Say what you want about Miller as an offensive tactician, but his ability to get a team in order and ready to play, plus get results defensively (Arizona is 18th in defensive efficiency), has been impressive this season. If this team remains short-handed then, yes, the team’s ceiling is limited in terms of how far they can go in the NCAA Tournament but, at minimum, they’ll be competitive.
2. New predictions for this team’s record in Pac-12 play:
BH: I’m operating under the assumption that there will be no Allonzo Trier all year. As such, this team lacks a go-to scorer. Luckily there are a number of guys who have picked up the scoring slack so far (four players averaging double-digits and two others above 8 points per game). Arizona is currently top 30 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom. The league is interesting in that UCLA -- not Oregon or even Arizona -- enters conference play as the team to beat. The L.A. schools in fact are a combined 26-0, making that January road swing perilous. The Cats only face Oregon once, but it’s in Eugene. I think the Cats are a good team still finding their way. I could see a 13-5 league season.
DP: 13-5 in conference play. The Pac-12 is loaded with games that Arizona should win and will probably win, but can’t be taken for granted. For example: the Wildcats open up conference play on the road against Cal and Stanford. Neither team has lost a bad game all year — the worst loss between the two is Cal’s loss to San Diego State in Sacramento, which isn’t that bad — and both have the potential to knock off the Wildcats. As Brandon mentioned, the trip to the Los Angeles schools in mid-January is treacherous, too. I expect the Wildcats to split most of their road trips, win almost all of their home games, and finish right about that 13-5 mark.
RK: If there is no Allonzo Trier, I think Arizona finishes third in the conference (exact record, I don’t know). If he returns, though, I could see the Wildcats finishing anywhere in the top 3. I know UCLA has been an offensive juggernaut, but its defense is still a measly 66th in the country in efficiency. Pac-12 games — especially on the road — are typically close, and if you struggle to get stops on a consistent basis, it can be easy to drop a game that you probably shouldn’t have. Plus, Oregon and UCLA have to play each other twice, while Arizona only has to play Oregon once, so Arizona does have an easier schedule than those two teams.