We're still more than five months away from the Arizona Wildcats' season opener against Michigan State, but it's never a bad time to talk Arizona basketball and you, the readers, had questions for me about the upcoming season.
And here are my answers!
I'm not sure Chance Comanche is the most under-the-radar player — I think that's Lauri Markkanen — but Comanche could wind up being the team's most important player.
With Kaleb Tarczewski no longer anchoring the paint and Dusan Ristic, well, not being the best defensive big man, Comanche will likely be the team's best interior defender on the roster. His length and athleticism give him the tools needed to be a superb rim-protector, and he showed flashes of being that last season, putting up the same block percentage that Kaleb Tarczewski had (4.9).
And of all the returning Wildcats, only Kadeem Allen (+5.2) had a better defensive box plus-minus — a box score estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player — than Comanche (+4.1). So it's clear that Comanche can be an effective — if not dominant — defensive player.
The biggest thing for him is to put on weight so he can defend on the low block as well as be a more consistent rebounder. Losing Tarczewski and Ryan Anderson will really hurt in that regard since both had a rebounding percentage of 19.9 percent, while Comanche and Ristic were at 14.9 and 13.1 percent, respectively. Comanche was listed at 205 pounds as a freshman and the last I heard he was was around 225, which is encouraging progress.
The other thing Comanche has to do is find a role offensively. He only played 139 minutes as a freshman, so it's a small sample size, but the offensive metrics weren't too kind to him.
Comanche had an offensive rating — an estimate of points scored per 100 possessions while he was on the floor — of 108.5 (ahead of only Kadeem Allen, Elliott Pitts, and Justin Simon), and was one of three Wildcats with a negative offensive box plus-minus — a box score estimate of the offensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player — of -0.1. Pitts and Simon were the only players to be negative.
Essentially, Comanche was a below average offensive player, and it makes sense considering his field goal percentage was 48.5 percent, and he couldn't hit much of anything outside of the paint. But like I said, it was a small sample size, so it's probably not that concerning.
An area I think we'll see Comanche improve is with his mid-range game. Coming into Arizona, Comanche was deemed to have a solid mid-range game, but we didn't really get to see that at all in his freshman year, as you can see from his shot chart below:
If he can knock down 15-footers (if not extend further than that) on a consistent basis it would drastically help the team's spacing. The good news is that Comanche is already very effective around the rim, making him a better target in pick-and-rolls and drop-off passes than, say, Tarczewski was.
All in all, I do think Comanche will be starting at some point in this upcoming season. It might even be earlier than January, and if it does happen, it might simply be for defensive reasons. The Wildcats' perimeter defense should be far better than it was this past season, so they might be able to get away with having Ristic as the team's last line of defense, but something tells me that Sean Miller will eventually get frustrated and put Comanche into the starting five.
Based on everything Sean Miller has said, Ray Smith is in terrific health (though, what else is he going to say?) as he recovers from a torn ACL, and he should be ready to play when the season opens up in November. Here's what Miller had to say about Smith in his most recent press conference:
"The only thing I can say about Ray is he’s doing every single thing he’s supposed to to be successful as a player. Anytime you have multiple ACL tears – one on each knee – it makes for a unique path, but both of his surgeries have been successful. If you talk to Chris Rounds, he’ll tell you that Ray Smith’s legs might be the strongest he’s ever seen and that’s quite a statement because that means Ray has spent hours in the weight room, strengthening that. So we’re optimistic that he’ll make a full recovery, and if so, he’ll be one of our newcomers. No question, he had a chance to be our starting small forward on last year’s team."
Based on that last line, it seems the coaches have high expectations for him. There were reports last season that Ray Smith was the team's most impressive player in the preseason, and if he's truly in as good of health as they say he's in, I'd expect to see Smith starting and making a huge impact from day one, especially since the loss of Terrance Ferguson opens up more playing time and scoring opportunities on the wing.
If by a Warriors-style offense you mean emphasizing pace, space, and ball movement, then yes, I'd say so. The team's personnel lends itself to that type of play. The team is loaded with guards/forwards that can play multiple positions and handle the ball, as well as big men that can potentially stretch and run the floor (Ristic being the least athletic, but he can definitely shoot the 3). The team's athleticism might be overwhelming at times, too. Can you imagine a lineup of Kadeem Allen, Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, and Chance Comanche? Or Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, and Lauri Markkanen? Those lineups should be flying up and down the court.
However, it does remain to be seen if Miller will have his team play an uptempo style of game. In Miller's time at Arizona, the Wildcats have generally played at a pace close to the Division 1 average. Last year, for example, Arizona played at a tempo — the number of possessions for 40 minutes — of 69.1. Division 1 average was 69.0. I'd like to think this year's team will kick it up a notch, but given Miller's history, I wouldn't expect them to be running and gunning out there.
Shooting-wise, this team might be a bit of a question mark. Trier is a very good shooter and so is Parker Jackson-Cartwright, but the rest are still a bit of an unknown. Is Markkanen's 3-point game as good as advertised? What type of shooters will Alkins and Simmons be? Will Allen improve in that area? Will Ristic and Comanche be hitting shots from distance regularly?
This could wind up being an excellent shooting team and from all five positions, but I could also see it being a very average shooting team. The loss of Ferguson certainly hurts here, as he would've been in the "proven shooter" category.
This question has been brought up a lot, and frankly, I don't know the answer to it. It's just so late in the recruiting process that Miller and company are probably out of luck when it comes to finding a viable high-school recruit (one that will actually make an impact) to fill that scholarship. My guess is they just give the scholarship to one of the walk-ons. It's not the best use of it, but unfortunately the timing of Ferguson's departure wasn't the best.
However, maybe Arizona can add a late graduate transfer, and the one I have in mind is Andrew White III. White recently decided to leave Nebraska to play elsewhere for his redshirt senior season. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 16.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game with the Cornhuskers as a redshirt junior. He made 41.2 percent of his 3s this past season and took over six of them per game. And he's not just a shooter, the guy is a scoring juggernaut.
That said, it's unclear if Arizona is interested in White or if White has interest in Arizona. White visited Syracuse recently, and has received interest from Louisville, VCU, and Cincinnati, but it's unknown if he has any other visits scheduled.
He's easily the best player on the market right now and he'd undoubtedly help Arizona, and obviously Arizona has a scholarship available so it'd be easy to add him to the roster. From the outside, it looks like a good match, but who knows, maybe White wants to be a featured player or wants to stay closer to home (he's from Richmond, Virginia). Or maybe Arizona is content with what it has.
In any event, it's probably a long-shot that White comes to Tucson, since so many schools are likely to have interest in him.
If I had to pick someone right now, I'd say Kadeem Allen starts, at least at the beginning of the season. And for two main reasons — Allen is the team's best defender and he's the only senior on the team. Those are two important distinctions given how young this Arizona team is and seeing that, on a roster with a lot of unknowns, Miller will likely want to have someone more experienced at point guard.
And I know Allen's more of a scoring point guard than a pure point guard, but he did show at times that he can do the latter pretty well too. He had a strong start to the season and then fizzled a bit toward the end, and you have to wonder how much of that was because of the illness that he contracted at the start of Pac-12 Conference play.
Either way, being in his second year at Arizona and having more playmakers around him — like Simmons and Alkins — I think we'll see an uptick in his scoring numbers, which is what he's best at, as well as an improvement as a passer and a shooter (did you know that he shot 36 percent from 3 last season? Granted, he was selective, but he was better than I initially remembered him to be).
But who knows, maybe Simmons will be starting when all is said and done. He might be the most balanced Arizona point guard, and his size could make him a nightmare for opposing point guards to defend. And while Jackson-Cartwright is probably the least likely to start, we know he's capable of providing a spark to the offense, whether that be by hitting 3s, getting into the paint and creating for others, or pushing the ball in transition (my favorite part of his game).
I mean, in the end it might not matter who starts for the Wildcats. They have three solid options and each brings a different skill set to the table. And we saw last year that Miller is willing to change the lineup based on who's playing well at a given moment or the matchup at hand.
What we do know is that Arizona's point guard situation this season will be better than it was last season, simply because Allen and PJC are a year older plus Simmons might be the most talented player in the group.
Since I've already answered the first two, I'll take a stab at the third question.
My early guess at the team's depth chart would be (starters in bold):
Kadeem Allen/Parker Jackson-Cartwright
Rawle Alkins/Kobi Simmons
Allonzo Trier/Keanu Pinder
Ray Smith/Lauri Markkanen
Dusan Ristic/Chance Comanche
Your guess is just as good as mine as to what the starting lineup will actually be, but just by looking at this depth chart you can just imagine all the lineups Miller can use.
I listed each player at one position to make it more organized, but almost every player (aside from Ristic and PJC) can play multiple positions. We'll see small lineups, big lineups, shooting lineups, defensive lineups, etc. Compared to last year, Miller has much more flexibility, seeing that guys like Gabe York, Ryan Anderson, and Kaleb Tarczewski were relegated to one position. This year's roster? Not so much.
Also, Keanu Pinder is a guy I'm not sure will crack the rotation. He's athletic and known to be a good defensive player (he was the Jayhawk Defensive Player of the Year at Hutchinson Community College after all) and a solid rebounder, but the question is whether or not he can be a serviceable offensive player. He's not expected to be a knockdown shooter — he shot 9-35 (25.7 percent) at Hutchinson last year — and I can't say I know too much about his offensive game outside of that.
Being a good rebounder and versatile defender is valuable, but you have to be able to contribute something offensively to be worthy of playing time (hello, Justin Simon), and hopefully Pinder can do that.
And if I had to guess I'd say that Pinder will play here and there, perhaps in a minute allotment similar to Matt Korcheck's, and not having Ferguson on the roster certainly opens up the possibility for even more playing time.
Thanks for the questions, and if I didn't get to your question and/or you want to ask me about something else, don't hesitate to tweet at me!
All stats via Kenpom.com and sports-reference.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapireUA