As a transfer from Samford University, Justin Coleman knows what he wants to accomplish in his one and only year with the Arizona Wildcats.
“I have goals to get into the NCAA Tournament,” he said, “because I’ve never been.”
In most years, playing for Arizona would be guaranteed admission to the Big Dance. The Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament six straight years and 32 times in the last 34 seasons.
But this is not most years.
The 2018-19 Wildcats are in an unusual rebuilding stage. They lost their entire starting five, brought in a subpar recruiting class (by Arizona standards), and return a group of players known more for their potential than production.
So if Coleman wants to achieve his goal, it will largely be his doing. The fifth-year senior is primed to be Arizona’s starting point guard and leader, despite only joining the program a few months ago.
Coleman was voted one of two captains by teammates and coaches. And he feels right at home in that role, even though he is still feeling out his new team and town.
“I feel like I’m vocal. I’m also a leader. 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.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller described Coleman as the quintessential point guard. Sure, he likes to score, and can score, but he enjoys creating for others even more.
“He’s a pass-first point guard. He has a great knack of making his teammates better,” Miller said. “He’s had big scoring nights, especially when he was very young at Alabama, playing against Oregon, playing against Arkansas ... 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.”
Which is why Miller made it clear that Coleman is the guy at point guard for Arizona. Other players like Brandon Williams and Alex Barcello might get their licks at the position too, but only when Coleman is off the court.
“When he’s in the game, he’ll be the point guard,” Miller reiterated.
Coleman may have played at Samford last season, beating up on Southern Conference foes, but he’s no scrub. He’s coming off a season in which he averaged 13.5 points and 6.6 assists per game, scoring efficiently at all three levels of the court.
Coleman was also a Top-100 recruit out of high school, originally attending Alabama. He played in Tuscaloosa for two years, before transferring to Samford so he could be closer to his hometown of Birmingham, after his two-year-old brother was diagnosed with cancer.
Fortunately, Coleman’s brother has been cleared of cancer, making him comfortable enough about making the cross-country move to Arizona.
“That was a big part of my decision. So once my family situation and everything came together, it helped me in my decision of transferring and giving myself the best opportunity to play basketball,” Coleman said.
“A lot of guys don’t get the opportunity to play under a great coach like Miller and in an environment like this. There’s only a couple elite schools in the country. There’s Kentucky, Duke, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Arizona being one them. So it’s a blessing to be here.”
That Coleman put others before himself is no surprise to those that know him best.
UA guard Dylan Smith, who grew up with Coleman in Alabama, describes Coleman as “the ultimate teammate.” Once, Smith missed five straight shots in a workout, prompting Coleman to come to his side and reassure him to keep shooting, that the next one would go down.
“He was just picking me up the whole time,” Smith said.
Sure enough, Smith’s next shot went in.
“He’s not criticizing or demanding, he’s encouraging,” Smith said. “He’s a real good teammate. You guys will see it when the games start, his energy he brings and the way he plays and how he bands people together, he’s going to be good for us.”