To commemorate the end of the decade, we will be compiling an all-decade (2010-19) team for each of the major Arizona programs. Next up: men’s basketball.
The Arizona Wildcats were dawning a new era at the turn of the decade. After two years of interim coaches, the UA hired former Xavier coach Sean Miller prior to the 2009-10 season, tasking him with rebuilding a program that Lute Olson had transformed into a West Coast power.
Some (cough, Andy Katz, cough) believed it would be several years before the Wildcats returned to relevancy. Turns out it’d be two. Arizona went 30-8 in 2010-11, Miller’s second season, reaching the Elite Eight for the ninth time in school history.
It started a tour-de-force by the Wildcats, who have gone 274-92 under Miller, including five Pac-12 championships, seven NCAA Tournament appearances, and three Elite Eights in 10 years.
Arizona was arguably the best program in the country from 2013 to 2015, when it won 88 percent of its games and made back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight, losing by a combined eight points in a pair of gut-wrenching defeats to Wisconsin.
The Wildcats couldn’t recapture that level of excellence in the second half of the decade. Arizona has won just two NCAA Tournament games since then, both during the 2016-17 season.
There has been no shortage of talent in Tucson, but the Wildcats have struggled to piece it together. It didn’t help that in September 2017, former assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested and later sentenced to three months in prison for bribery, stemming from his involvement in the college basketball corruption scandal.
That, and an ESPN report that said Deandre Ayton was offered $100,000 to play at Arizona, put Miller’s future in serious doubt for a couple years there. Things have quieted on that front as the Wildcats await the results of a pending NCAA investigation, which could yield harsh sanctions in the 2020s.
But before we get there, let’s take a look back at the top players of the 2010s.
Point guard — T.J. McConnell (2012-2015)*
McConnell was (and still is) a legend in Tucson despite only spending two seasons in an Arizona uniform. His bulldog mentality made him the most loved player in McKale Center—and most despised player in opposing venues.
While most known for his intangibles—his hustle, his passion, and his leadership—McConnell was no slouch as a player. In 76 career games at the UA, he averaged 9.4 points, 5.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game, excelling in nearly every facet of the game. He shot an efficient 48 percent from the field and posted an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 3 to 1. His numbers were even better in Pac-12 contests, showing his ability to step up when it mattered most.
But the most important stat of all? He won. A lot. The Wildcats went 67-9 with McConnell at point, including two Pac-12 Championships and a pair of Elite Eight appearances. And, if not for Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker going nuclear and/or Brandon Ashley’s foot injury, Arizona probably would have made its first Final Four since 2001.
Yes, McConnell was surrounded by great players, but he helped get the best out of them. Whether it was challenging them emotionally or setting them up with pristine passes, he was the glue of those teams. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the program hasn’t been the same since he graduated, even though the talent level hasn’t changed all that much.
*includes redshirt year
Shooting guard — Nick Johnson (2011-14)
A springy two-guard, Johnson steadily improved over his three-year career, peaking his junior season when he averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists with a pretty good .432/.367/.781 shooting line.
That season, he and McConnell formed a tenacious backcourt, as both were pesky defenders willing to do the dirty work. The 6-foot-3 Johnson didn’t have ideal size for his position but made up for it with explosive athleticism. (His nickname is Bunnies for a reason)
Johnson was a consensus All-American and the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2014. Some will argue he should have returned for his senior season, but aside from making a Final Four, he didn’t have much left to prove at this level.
Small forward — Solomon Hill (2009-13)
This is the hardest position to discern because you can make a strong argument for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon. (For the record, I’d place RHJ over Gordon. I will explain in a second.)
But I gave Hill the nod for one major reason: his career path. He stayed for all four seasons and improved each year, eventually averaging a career-high 13.4 PPG as a senior with a shooting line of .458/.390/.766. That’s exactly double his scoring average from his freshman season.
That wasn’t the best part of Hill’s game, either. He averaged 5.6 rebounds per game for his career, including 7.7 as a junior, and played multiple positions defensively. That well-roundedness is what led him to be a first-round NBA Draft pick.
That kind of progression used to be commonplace in college basketball, but it has gone to the wayside at Arizona in the one-and-done era.
That is the same reason why I rank Hollis-Jefferson above Gordon. RHJ was just as productive as a sophomore as Gordon was as a freshman. Add RHJ’s solid freshman season into the equation, and he made a bigger impact on the program than Gordon, even though the latter was more talented.
For reference, here are the numbers from Hollis-Jefferson’s sophomore season and Gordon’s freshman season. Both were tremendous defensively.
- RHJ: 28.7 MPG, 11.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 50.2 FG%, 57.3 TS%
- AG: 31.2 MPG, 12.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 49.5 FG%, 35.6 3PT%, 50.3 TS%
Really though, you can’t go wrong with any of these guys.
Power forward — Derrick Williams (2009-11)
No player has had more of an impact on the Miller era of Arizona basketball than Derrick Williams. First, let’s talk about how he wound up in Tucson because it wasn’t supposed to happen. Former USC coach Tim Floyd resigned in June 2009, causing the Trojans’ commits to reopen their recruitments very late in the process.
Three of them—Hill, Williams, and the electric MoMo Jones—joined the Wildcats. (Hill was originally committed to Arizona but flipped to USC when Olson’s status became uncertain, so him landing at the UA was not surprising.)
Ironically, Williams was the least-heralded of the three. 247Sports pegged him as the No. 94 recruit while other recruiting services, like Rivals, listed him as a three-star recruit. None of the powerhouse programs offered him.
But Williams destroyed worlds from the moment he stepped on campus. In just his second game, he had 27 points and 14 rebounds—on 9-of-10 shooting!—in a win over New Mexico State. That set the tone for a freshman season in which he averaged 15.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game on 57 percent shooting.
His unexpected emergence was the No. 1 reason the Wildcats were respectable in Miller’s first season when they went 16-15 overall and 8-10 in the Pac-12. They were supposed to be much worse after losing Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger to the NBA and having to scrape together a signing class at the last minute.
Williams then brought Arizona back to prominence as a sophomore. The La Mirada, California native averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game with an insane .595/.568/.746 shooting line. He was the Pac-12 Player of the Year and a second-team All-American, the key cog in a 30-win season.
Athletic and strong, Williams could spot-up, post-up, or take you off the dribble. He was unstoppable at the elbow and eventually expanded his game to the 3-point line where he shot almost 60 percent.
Williams led No. 5-seeded Arizona to the Elite Eight, averaging 22.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tournament. His hallmark game came against No. 2-seeded Duke when he poured in 32 points and 13 rebounds on 11-of-17 shooting in a 93-77 rout of the Blue Devils. (Remember all those dunks?)
Arizona heartbreakingly lost to UConn in the next round, and a few months later Williams was off to the NBA as the No. 2 overall pick.
Center — Deandre Ayton (2017-18)
I am confident in saying that Ayton is the most talented player to ever wear an Arizona uniform—and will be for a long time, especially if the NBA lowers its age limit in the coming years as expected. The Bahamian was 7-feet tall, armed with a 7-6 wingspan, a 43.5-inch vertical, sweet footwork, a smooth jumper, soft touch around the rim, and reliable hands. Basically, if you could design a big man in a lab, Ayton would be the specimen.
He averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds per game with extraordinary efficiency in his lone season at Arizona, capturing all the individual accolades you could dream of. He was Pac-12 Player and Freshman of the Year, a consensus first-team All-American, won the Karl Malone Award, set several school records, and was the first Wildcat to be selected No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft.
Unfortunately, his legacy will be stained by the first-round exit against Buffalo and that ESPN report, even though the veracity of it remains shaky at best. And while his 25-game drug suspension with the Suns has nothing to do with his time at Arizona, it hasn’t helped him repair his reputation, either.