Like many Arizona Wildcats fans, Sean Miller was surprised to see his team was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12.
But probably not for the same reason.
“I was surprised we were picked that high,” he said Thursday at Pac-12 media day. “I don’t look at us as being the fourth-best team in the Pac-12. I don’t mean that in a negative light at all towards our group, but we’ve lost eight players from a year ago. So I think if you look at that, there’s a lot of teams that have very good players and more experience returning.”
Arizona, the defending champion, has been picked to win the conference in five of the past six years, so Miller said the lowered expectations are actually “refreshing.”
“A lot of people don’t think we’re going to be very good. I don’t need to tell our players that. They understand that,” he said.
“We’re a team that I think can play with a healthy chip on our shoulder, trying to be better than maybe everybody else thinks we are, and figure out the way that we’re going to go about doing that.”
Miller outlined the keys to success
So what is it going to take for Arizona to finish in the top four?
“We have to be a real fun team to watch,” Miller responded. “We’re not going to do it with one player. We’re going to do it as a true group of eight or nine, and we have to be connected on offense and defense. I know those are words that a lot of coaches use.
“It’s not easy to establish. But if we are to have a very successful season, I think we will become a team that you admire how we share the ball, you admire our effort, and I’m sure we’ll be in a lot of tough, close games, particularly in the month of November where, when you welcome this many new faces and have that much change, you’re very vulnerable early on.”
Can’t forget the sophomores
Still, Miller continues to circle back to Arizona’s sophomore class — Brandon Randolph, Alex Barcello, Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee — as a major key for success.
“A year ago none of those four might have had a big role, but they all did have a role, and ... If you look at who they were when they were recruited, they were all very good, highly thought of players, but sometimes the biggest jump you can make in college sports is between your freshman and sophomore year, and we’re really banking on that,” Miller said.
Brandon Williams is a freshman, but Miller believes he will make a “big impact” too.
“I think Brandon will be one of the best freshmen that plays in our conference,” he said. “Plays both the 1 and the 2. He’s got a 6’6” wingspan, 6’2”, so he’s a bigger guard, can really score, and very dynamic in the open court. I think we’ll rely on him a lot, both in his play making and scoring ability.”
Miller said one of the by-products of playing small is shooting more 3s, so you should expect to see more of those from the undersized Wildcats this year.
Arizona has quietly been an excellent 3-point shooting team under Miller — shooting 36 percent or better in every season but his first — but the volume has been lacking considerably.
Arizona has ranked 300th or lower in 3-point attempt percentage — the percentage of a team’s shots that are 3s — for five straight years. In other words, Arizona has been highly selective from beyond the arc, and it is probably one reason why it has shot such a high percentage. Quality over quantity, right?
The Wildcats becoming more trigger-happy could be a good change if they can maintain that efficiency since, well, 3-point shots are more valuable than 2-point shots.
Then again, there could be serious repercussions if their shooting percentage dips.
Arizona has finished with a Top 20 offense in the country in each of the past six seasons. Is it smart to change something that isn’t broken? Maybe not, but given this team’s personnel there probably isn’t any other option.
Chase Jeter will start at center
This became clear once Jeter was named a team captain — and because Arizona is short on big men — but Miller confirmed it Thursday.
“Chase has a lot of gifts on defense. He’s smart. He can move. He knows where to be. A ball screen defense is a big part of the game now, and he’s as good of a guy moving in that area as we’ve had,” he said.
“Offensively he will learn how to play off of others, but he might not be as adept of a scoring guy, but I definitely think he can be a double-figure scorer, but what makes him good is his versatility, the things he can do on defense.”
Jeter gave his take on this year’s team.
“Our athleticism is our biggest strength,” he said. “Defense is key to that and the spirit, will and toughness we have to play with, and I think every guy on this roster is capable of that.”
Devonaire Doutrive standing out
Randolph and Jeter were asked which teammate has been better than expected in practice so far, and they both mentioned freshman Devonaire Doutrive, per The Athletic’s Doug Haller.
Doutrive was the No. 72 recruit in the country, so he doesn’t enter the program with the same notoriety as someone like Williams, but he believes he is being underrated.
“Yeah, I feel like that,” Doutrive said at local media day. “Because in AAU I didn’t really play on a high-end (team). I only played on the circuit my junior year going into my senior year, so I guess that’s what threw me off. Going into my senior year, (playing AAU) helped me get looks from coaches and stuff.”
Doutrive, who attended Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, California, described himself as a quick, long combo guard who can handle the ball, adding that his favorite players to emulate are Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard.
But on this Arizona team, which is teeming with guards, the 6-foot-5 Doutrive seems destined to split time between the 2 and 3.
Earning playing time won’t be easy because of all the competition, but there are certainly minutes to be had since Arizona has to replace five starters.
“I think by me bringing energy, playing defense, doing what is asked by coaches, I think that’s where my minutes will come from,” Doutrive said.
Other things we learned about Arizona
- Jeter has the highest GPA on the team (3.7) but admitted he has falsely claimed to have the highest GPA among all UA student-athletes. Not what you want to see from a team captain. (This is sarcasm.)
- Arizona is still looking for a defensive stopper: “Hopefully we will at some point. Among many good things that happened to us on the court last year, we never really came up with that defensive stopper,” Miller said. “We had a lot of guys that I think tried their best, but if you really pinpoint who that person was, I don’t know if it ever happened, and it’s easier to establish.”
- Miller has mentioned Akot filling that role before, and Jeter said the sophomore has “brought more energy to the team this year than last year. We’re looking forward to what he can bring to the table.”
- Miller predictably declined to answer several questions about the federal college basketball corruption trial that is ongoing in New York: “Again, I’m aware a trial is going on, but if you’d like to ask me about our team this year, our program on the court, I’d be happy to answer those questions. Any of the other types of questions, I would ask you to go to the statement that I made in March.”
- Make sure to check out my notebook from local media day, which has stuff about Justin Coleman, the point guard situation, and lots more. Our basketball section is always a good place to go, too.
- This is a real exchange that happened Thursday:
Reporter: "How are you doing?"— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) October 11, 2018
Sean Miller: "Fine."
Reporter: "You look good."
Riveting stuff happening right now.