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What’s next for Arizona basketball?

The Wildcats have a lot of questions to answer this offseason

Buffalo v Arizona Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats’ turbulent season shockingly came to an end Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as they were routed — yes, routed — by the No. 13 seeded Buffalo Bulls, 89-68.

Not only did that end UA’s rollercoaster season in demoralizing fashion, but it means Arizona is now entering an offseason that is unlike anything it has faced since the two years Lute Olson stepped away from the team in the mid-2000s.

So let’s take a look at what the Wildcats have to deal with.

They need their returning players to develop. A lot.

Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Keanu Pinder, and Talbott Denny are set to graduate and Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins are heading to the NBA, so Arizona is set to return six scholarship players next season.

They are:

  • Brandon Randolph
  • Ira Lee
  • Alex Barcello
  • Emmanuel Akot
  • Chase Jeter (sat out 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer rules)
  • Dylan Smith

None of these players have proven to be quality contributors at a high-major level, and most of them hardly even played at all this past season.

But Arizona is going to have to rely heavily on them in 2018-19.

As of now, the Wildcats have zero incoming recruits. They will undoubtedly add someone to their roster (more on that later), but they won’t be the usual five-star recruits that this program is accustomed to reloading with, since its recruiting efforts have been ravaged by the federal investigation and, most recently, ESPN’s Sean Miller wiretap report.

So in order to have any semblance of success next season, Arizona’s returning players are going to have to improve immensely over the offseason.

There is reason to think they can. Four of them — Emmanuel Akot, Brandon Randolph, Ira Lee, and Chase Jeter — were highly-touted out of high school. The raw talent is there for them to be productive players in college, it’s just about maximizing it moving forward.

“There’s good talent coming up in the program, so we’ll be just fine,” Jackson-Cartwright assured.

Plus, four of Arizona’s returners will be sophomores next season, which is the year when guys are perceived to make the biggest jump as a player.

Maybe Randolph will become the scorer that folks projected he would be, or Akot will transform into the lockdown perimeter defender that Miller envisioned him as.

“The jump makes sense,” Akot said. “As a freshman, you watch the older guys, how they play, what they’re good at and how they were successful and add that to your game. So I see the jump.

“It makes sense. I’m going to make that jump.”

Arizona needs to fill out the rest of its coaching staff — or maybe even get a new one

It is no longer reactionary to wonder if Miller is the right person to be Arizona’s head coach. Let’s just throw out the team’s current recruiting issues for a second.

A 21-point loss to a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament was unacceptable with that roster.

Sure, it had its flaws — like the lack of a lockdown perimeter defender — but Arizona had a once-in-a-generation big man who is likely to be the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick, an elite scorer in Allonzo Trier, a solid wing in Rawle Alkins, and two seniors to round out its starting lineup, one of whom was an All-Pac-12 player.

Arizona’s bench was unproductive, but it’s not like there wasn’t talent on it. As mentioned above, several of the team’s bench players were highly-regarded as recruits. Yet, Arizona was not able to get much of anything out of them.

Is it fair to entirely blame Miller for that? Definitely not. Sometimes freshmen just aren’t ready to contribute right away. But it’s also hard to believe that he maximized their talent.

And then, yes, there are the recruiting issues. If Miller is no longer able to attract elite talent because of the perception of him around the country, can you stick with him? There’s a legitimate debate to be made there and it would be understandable if the school decides to part ways.

Then again, finding Miller’s replacement could be difficult because who knows who’s hirable these days. Every now and then, a new report breaks that adds another head coach to the seemingly widespread college basketball recruiting scandal. Most recently, it was Mark Gottfried who just got hired at Cal State Northridge.

So sticking with Miller does make sense, and if Arizona does decide to go that route, it will need to fill out its coaching staff.

Book Richardson is gone, so is Lorenzo Romar. It seems unlikely that 27-year-old Austin Carroll will take Richardson’s place permanently, which means the Wildcats will probably be in the market for two new assistant coaches this offseason.

Assistant coach Mark Phelps spends a lot of time working with Arizona’s big men, so the Wildcats will need to bring in coaches who work well with guards and wings, like Romar did.

And, of course, anyone they hire needs to have solid recruiting ties. That is more important than ever.

Arizona has to add several players, but where are they going to come from?

College basketball teams are allotted 13 scholarships, so Arizona has seven vacant spots heading into the offseason.

High school recruiting is proving to be fruitless because of Arizona’s tarnished image, which means it will have to focus on two alternative routes — the transfer market and the junior college circuit.

Since Arizona needs bodies that can contribute immediately, adding “normal” transfers, the ones that have to sit out a year, probably isn’t worthwhile. That would only deplete UA’s depth even further (the women’s team dealt with that this year and it did not go well).

That means grad transfers need to be a high priority. Not only can they play immediately — and some at a very high level — but they would add much-needed experience to a roster that is extremely devoid of it otherwise.

And many grad transfers are proven commodities. The same can’t really be said for junior college players, who have to adjust to Division 1 basketball the same way incoming freshmen do, albeit they are a few years older.

The downside is that grad transfers are only a temporary fix since most only have one year of eligibility.

In all, it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats landing zero high school recruits when all is said and done (though they aren’t close to landing anyone and it’s mid-March), but it’s clear they will have to get creative with how they construct their roster next season.

The days of reloading with five or six talented highly-ranked freshmen are over — for now.

Projected starting lineup

PG — Alex Barcello

SG — Brandon Randolph/Dylan Smith

SF — Emmanuel Akot

PF — Ira Lee

C — Chase Jeter

Arizona’s biggest question mark heading into next season is its point guard play.

Barcello averaged just 2.4 points and 0.9 assists in 9.6 minutes as a freshman. He did not appear ready for major-conference college basketball, and he will be need to be one of those guys that improves drastically between his freshman and sophomore seasons in order to be an acceptable rotation player, let alone a starter.

This is why getting Brandon Williams to re-commit would be massive. The high-four-star prospect is an exceptional talent who could come in and immediately spearhead an Arizona offense that doesn’t currently have many shot creators.

As you often see in college basketball, a dynamic point guard can salvage an offense that isn’t so talented at other positions. The most obvious example of this is Oklahoma’s Trae Young, though he is not exactly the best example since he is doing things that aren’t exactly replicable.

But Arizona has plenty of competition for Williams — who has received interest from several schools including Kansas, Kentucky, Oregon, and UCLA — so it’s far from a given that he will re-up with the Wildcats.

In the front court, Chase Jeter is obviously a key piece. The soon-to-be redshirt junior is not only in line to be Arizona’s starting center, but he will be a fourth-year player and one of the few veterans on the team.

Jeter, a long-armed 7-footer, was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of Bishop Gorman high school, but had two uninspiring seasons at Duke, averaging 2.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 48 games, before moving to Arizona. Part of that was because of injury.

Jeter did show a lot of promise as a defender, though, and should be an upgrade over Ristic on that side of the ball. But he has a lot of improvement to make offensively. Jeter shot just 50 percent as a sophomore (keep in mind, he doesn’t take many jumpers) and 55.6 percent from the line.

The good news is Jeter is known for his “crazy” work ethic, so it’s not outlandish to think he will be vastly better at Arizona than he was at Duke, especially since he’s had a whole year to develop.

Early 2018-19 outlook

2018-19 will surely be a transitional year for Arizona, barring all of its returners taking a huge step forward.

Every program goes through transitional periods, and the real question is: how long will the Wildcats be in that phase?

The beauty of college basketball is it only takes one or two quality recruiting classes to form a top-tier team. If the FBI stuff blows over and Arizona starts recruiting at an elite level again in 2019, then it might only have one down year.

But if its recruiting struggles bleed into 2019 and beyond, then you’re looking at a program that could be stuck in purgatory for years.

If that’s the case, a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire