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What we learned at Arizona basketball media day

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NCAA Basketball: Cal. State - Bakersfield at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats held their annual Media Day on Monday, giving us a chance to talk to players and coaches for the first time this fall.

Here were my main takeaways plus a whole bunch of notes.

Coleman will only play point guard

Justin Coleman, Alex Barcello and Brandon Williams are Arizona’s three point guards, Miller said. But what separates Coleman from the other two, Miller added, is that he will exclusively play point guard. Williams and Barcello will play a lot off the ball.

“He’s a small point guard. He’s a pass-first point guard,” Miller said of Coleman, who’s listed at 5-10. “He has a great knack of making his teammates better. He’s had big scoring nights. ... He’s a capable scorer, but he’s more of what I would call the true throwback point guard and that he’s a run-the-team guy and somebody who thinks pass before shoot.”

Reading between the lines, Miller propped up the idea that Coleman will start.

Not only was the ex-Samford guard named a team captain, but Miller said this about graduate transfers: “One of the keys when you have the opportunity to get a grad transfer and welcome them into your program, you want to have a role for them because they only have one year and in both of their cases they (Coleman and Ryan Luther) do.”

“Deceptive leaders”

Chase Jeter is the other team captain, and Miller expects Luther to have a leadership role as well. The unique part about that? None of them have played for Arizona yet.

But they are the oldest players on the team and familiar with the rigors that come with playing major-conference college basketball — Coleman played at Alabama, Luther at Pittsburgh and Jeter at Duke — so Miller called them “deceptively experienced.”

“They may not have experience playing for Arizona but ... they have an opportunity to bring their experience as a college basketball player to our group, and when they learn our terminology and they practice more and they get into things in the month of October and November, I think it’ll be easier for them to lead the group,” he said.

Several teammates praised Coleman’s leadership.

“He’s not criticizing or demanding, he’s encouraging,” said Dylan Smith, who has been friends with Coleman since they grew up together in Alabama. “You guys will see it when the games start. His energy he brings and the way he plays and how he bands people together.”

Coleman said that responsibility comes with being the point guard.

“I feel like I’m vocal. I put guys in the right situations so they can be successful,” he said. “I’m also a facilitator, I can also score the ball, so I’m just here to make everybody else better around me.”

Hello, small ball

The Wildcats only have three true big men — Jeter, Luther and Ira Lee — and a tweener in Emmanuel Akot, so Miller said they will be deploying more three-guard lineups this season, often with just one big man.

That should mean more athleticism on the perimeter along with more spacing, ball-handlers and, potentially, a quicker pace.

“We’re a lot faster on the perimeter, so we’re going to contain the ball on the perimeter. We also have a shot blocker (in Chase Jeter),” Coleman said.

With a plethora of guards and wings, Lee said he expects Arizona to do more switching on defense.

“We’re more traditional this year and I hope that we can get some benefits because of that,” Miller said. “Certainly we don’t have the height, the size, the rebounding, but maybe we can make up for it with being able to match up better on the perimeter.”

Akot said Arizona will need a team effort on the glass to compensate for the lack of size.

“Everyone has to box out, we have to be physical, but I think we’ll be fine in that area,” he said. “Chase is also a good rebounder.”

With depth lacking, there has been an emphasis on Jeter, Luther and Lee being as conditioned as possible. All three have body fat percentages under 10 percent. And Akot, who benched 185 pounds 18 times this offseason, added 15 pounds of muscle, knowing he will be needed to play the 4.

“We’re going to be as smart as we can and prepare those guys as best we can,” Miller said. “They all have different builds, but the one thing you can control when you’re talking about injuries ... is to be as big and strong as you can be. And I think when you start talking about guys having six percent body fat, eight, nine percent body fat, that gives them the best chance to be as healthy as we can.

“And I rely a lot on Justin Kokoskie and Chris Rounds that if we start getting into some overuse, we can always pull back and be as smart as we can.”

Randolph, Barcello and Luther are the team’s best shooters

Statistically, Barcello was UA’s best shooter in the summer, Miller said. Luther and Brandon Randolph were lauded by their teammates as well.

“We have shooting drills in the summer time, and those guys shoot 80 to 85 percent every workout and that’s really tough to do after conditioning, ball-handling, and running up and down the court for an hour and a half,” Coleman said.

Lee once saw Luther make “damn near 60 threes in a row.”

“He’s up there with some of the best shooters I’ve seen,” Jeter added. “I think Luke Kennard is probably the best shooter I’ve been around and Ryan Luther’s up there with him. He’s very versatile, he’s going to have a lot of options to play.”

Luther can be used as a stretch 4 alongside another big, or even as a stretch 5 as the lone big. Coleman’s eyes widened when asked how that will help UA’s spacing.

“It’s going to be crazy because he’s one of the best shooters on the team,” he said. “So it’s going to be hard for the other team to guard us. ... He averaged 13 and 10 (at Pitt), so I’m pretty sure he can hold his own down there.”

Williams the favorite to be the leading scorer?

Who is going to lead the Wildcats in scoring this year? It’s perhaps the biggest question they have to answer, but early signs point to freshman Brandon Williams.

Miller described him as a dynamic playmaker and scorer, who is athletic and thrives in transition, but also has a developing jump shot.

Williams’ teammates were more effusive with their praise.

“He can score the ball with the best,” Coleman said. “He might be a better scorer than Allonzo Trier and everybody knows he averaged 20 last year. He has a lot of upside and playing together, he creates for me and I create for him.”

With Coleman set to eat up most of the minutes at the point, Williams seemingly will spend most of his time at the 2, and will even occasionally play the 3. Williams said he is comfortable playing anywhere.

“When we had maybe our best team that I’ve been a part of it Arizona, sometimes you don’t realize how many minutes Gabe York, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell played together,” Miller said.

“Looking back at that season, some of our best moments ... those three guys were on the court a lot together and that’s kind of the route we’re moving. Not only this year but beyond, and I think Brandon is the type of player that can really thrive in that system.”

It’s still anyone’s guess as to which returners will break out

Miller said in May that UA’s returning players — and how much they improve — will have a big hand in the team’s success this season.

When asked again Monday if any are primed for a breakout season, he didn’t name a specific player. But he thinks all will be “more confident, bigger, stronger, and obviously more experienced.”

“From your freshman year to your sophomore year, my experience is that many times that’s the biggest jump a player can make,” Miller said. “And we have several that are in that boat, starting with Brandon Randolph. Brandon has a lot of talent, he has the ability to make shots and I think he has a chance to be a double-figure scorer for us. ... I could certainly see him making a significant jump.

“Emmanuel Akot really the same. Emmanuel has a different style than Brandon, but we can play him at a number of different positions and maybe is our team’s best overall passer, yet he’s 6-7. And he’s much bigger and stronger right now than he was a year ago, which I think will be helpful.

“I will say the same thing about Ira Lee. Ira had a very competitive environment in practice last year when you consider who he was going up against. ... Especially as a young guy, you have a chance to learn a lot, build confidence and grow from that competitive setting.”

Other notes

  • Miller said freshman Omar Thielemans is a “developmental player” whose “best years are ahead of him.” Watch for him to be a redshirt candidate.
  • Miller said Lee’s punishment for his DUI is still to be determined: “We’re working through that right now. Our focus is to make sure that he’s in a healthy environment.”
  • Luther benched 185 pounds 25 times, breaking the school record previously held by Talbott Denny.
  • Luther on the foot injury that made him miss most of last season: “It’s good. I’m 100 percent right now.”
  • Miller on the benefit of having so many roles up for grabs: “When you have that sitting there, they go for it. And you’ve noticed ... as far back as early spring throughout the summer and fall, those guys that were here a year ago that didn’t play maybe as much ... are hungry to have a bigger role.”
  • Miller on who the team’s defensive stopper will be: “That’s what I don’t have the answer to. Last year that was our struggle.”
  • Miller on Akot’s defensive potential: “I believe he has a lot of ability to be a good defensive player. He knows our system a lot more now than he did as a freshman.”
  • Lee on Jeter: “You’ll see a lot of talk, a lot defense. His post game has improved tremendously. He’s not your normal big. He’ll move, he’ll run the court. He’ll do a lot of good things.”
  • Jeter on Lee: “Ira’s gotten a lot better. He’s starting to figure out the game more. He runs the floor better. He moves with purpose. He’s doing things you didn’t see from him last year.”
  • Miller said Jeter is on track to graduate in December.
  • With so much roster turnover, Miller said Arizona benefitted from the new NCAA provisions that allow four hours of workouts per week in the summer instead of two: “But we have a long way to go. Every team does at this time of year. But in our case, I think maybe even a little further just because of so much wholesale change. It’s something that I have not experienced. It’s kind of like almost taking over a new program.”
  • Arizona plans to sign five or six recruits in its 2019 class.
  • Coleman transferred from Alabama to Samford to be closer to home because his two-year-old brother was diagnosed with cancer. But he is cancer-free now, which made Coleman feel comfortable about finishing his career at Arizona.
  • Coleman on his goals at the UA: “Honestly, I just came in here with a mindset to just get better. I have goals to get into the NCAA Tournament because I’ve never been, so my job is just to come in and get guys prepared everyday to be better.”
  • Randolph said Arizona will not only make the NCAA Tournament, but the Final Four as well.