Expectations are low for the Arizona Wildcats heading into the 2018-19 season. They lost their entire starting five and brought in a recruiting class ranked 23rd in the country, well below their usual standard.
One outlet thinks they will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.
Arizona still has plenty of talent on its roster to be a dangerous team, but it’s unproven talent. So here are five Wildcats with the most to prove in 2018-19 (in no particular order):
The Pittsburgh graduate transfer will likely be in the starting lineup from day one at Arizona, manning the power forward position as a stretch big man alongside Chase Jeter. How long Luther stays there could be determined by one factor: his health.
The 6-foot-9 forward was a nice player for the Panthers last season, averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds per game. However, he only appeared in 10 games, as his season ended early after he suffered a stress reaction in his right foot.
Luther had similar injury issues in 2016-17 when he missed 12 games because of a stress fracture in the same foot. In total, he’s appeared in just 31 games the last two seasons.
Will he stay healthy in his lone season in Tucson? The Wildcats sure need him to, seeing that their frontcourt depth is questionable at best.
The jury is still out on Luther as a player, too. Yes, he averaged a double-double last season, but he averaged just 3.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in conference games during his Pitt tenure.
The Pac-12 isn’t the ACC, but Luther has yet to prove he can be a quality starter against major-conference opponents.
Jeter is the most important player on Arizona’s roster.
Dusan Ristic and Deandre Ayton are gone, so the Duke transfer is expected to slide in as UA’s new starting center. There really aren’t any other options, unless Arizona wants to play ultra small-ball with two forwards in the frontcourt. Jeter, a former McDonald’s All-American, is the only player on the roster measuring at 6-foot-10 or taller.
While Jeter has the size and athleticism to be a viable starting center, does he have the game? We’ll see.
Like Luther, Jeter dealt with a litany of injuries at his previous school, most notably a back injury that cost him most of his sophomore season.
But even when Jeter did play, he was not good. He averaged just 2.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.3 minutes across 48 games. He shot 53 percent from the field, but just 55 percent from the free-throw line and he showed virtually no shooting range, missing 13 of his 18 mid-range jumpers.
So it’s fair to ask: how much will Jeter actually be able to contribute offensively?
Then there’s rebounding. Jeter collected just 8.5 rebounds per 40 minutes at Duke. For reference, Ristic tracked down 10.3 rebounds per 40 minutes last season, despite having to share the boards with Ayton.
And Jeter won’t have the luxury of playing alongside someone like Ayton, so he has to be a force on the glass or Arizona will have major trouble in that department unless its wings and guards can make up for it.
Equally important, Jeter has to be a solid interior defender and provide some rim-protection for Arizona to improve defensively, though that’s something he was good at when he was at Duke.
No newcomer enters the 2018-19 season with more hype than Williams. After a long recruitment full of twists and turns, he opted to re-commit to the UA after he decommitted following ESPN’s Sean Miller wiretap report.
A high four-star recruit, Williams was the No. 34 prospect in the 2018 class, but is underrated if you ask Miller, who said the 6-foot-3 point guard would have been a McDonald’s All-American if he didn’t miss his junior year because of knee surgery.
Williams will certainly have the opportunity to validate that claim.
Arizona needs a new lead guard now that Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright are no longer with the program, and Williams (along with graduate transfer Justin Coleman) is primed to be one of the team’s main shot-creators.
He averaged 24.7 points per game in his senior year at Crespi High School, despite being on a minute-restriction early in the season.
Randolph appeared on track for stardom last summer after he tore it up during the Spain exhibition tour. However, that success did not carry over to the regular season, as the former four-star recruit averaged 3.7 points per game with a shooting line of .387/.326/.731.
But the athletic 6-foot-6 swingman should benefit from an expanded role as a sophomore.
Randolph only averaged 11.6 minutes last season and often had a short leash off the bench. With more minutes — and freedom — along with another offseason of development, he has a chance to become a dynamic scorer. Maybe even Arizona’s best scorer.
The Wildcats lost their top five scorers from a season ago, and that production will have to be replaced somehow.
Randolph showed flashes in non-conference play, when he recorded four double-digit scoring outings in a five-game span, displaying a smooth jumper and an ability to get to the rim.
Two of those performances came against ranked teams (Purdue, Texas A&M), while another came against Alabama, who Arizona faces again in 2018-19.
Arizona’s defense was putrid last season, finishing with its worst defensive efficiency since Miller’s first season in Tucson.
One problem is Arizona did not have a stifling perimeter defender that could make life difficult for the opposing team’s best guard or wing.
6-foot-7 Emmanuel Akot — equipped with long arms, a strong frame, and adequate quickness — can be that guy next season.
Like Randolph, Akot showed flashes as a freshman, but he was never able to nail down a consistent role.
Part of that’s because he dealt with knee tendinitis that limited his mobility, but it was also because most of UA’s minutes on the wing were consumed by Alkins and Trier, while Ayton took up most of the minutes at the 4.
Akot should play a lot more as a sophomore, and the Wildcats can make much-needed strides on defense if he emerges as a reliable stopper.
Offensively, Akot has to prove his 3-point shooting was not a fluke. He shot 37.5 percent from 3, but in an extremely small sample size (24 attempts).