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What we learned about Arizona basketball at Sean Miller’s media day press conference

arizona-wildcats-scholarship-offers-recruiting-2020-dj-steward-dalen-terry-miller-college-basketball Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller spoke to the media for almost an hour Tuesday, his first press conference since his team was eliminated from the Pac-12 Tournament last March.

The Wildcats have undergone an extreme amount of turnover since then, mostly for the better. They added eight newcomers including the No. 3 recruiting class in the country and three highly-regarded transfers in Jordan Brown, Jemarl Baker Jr. and Max Hazzard.

Arizona also welcomes back a pair of fifth-year seniors (Chase Jeter and Dylan Smith), giving it an interesting mix of youth and experience along with sky-high expectations.

“So I’m hoping that the older guys will mentor the younger ones and you put it all together and it’ll be a nice group of people,” Miller said.

Here are other takeaways from his presser.

Jordan Brown will sit out 2019-20, Jemarl Baker is still seeking a waiver

Miller confirmed that Nevada transfer Jordan Brown will sit out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules. However, he said Kentucky transfer Jemarl Baker Jr. is still seeking a waiver and that he might be able to play this season.

Adding Baker into the mix would be enormous for Arizona’s thin backcourt, which already lost Brandon Williams for the season. Even if Baker cannot play this season, Miller said he and Brown are still important to the team’s immediate goals.

“Our policy has always been … you want to treat those guys like they’re getting ready for game one,” Miller said. “What that allows us to do is to have the most competitive daily practice environment you we possibly have. When you have those two guys in key roles playing in every drill, competing at a higher level, that just makes Ira Lee that much better. That develops Nico Mannion and Max Hazzard and Josh Green and Devonaire (Doutrive).”

Miller doesn’t downplay Mannion hype

Miller said he has “no doubt” five-star point guard Nico Mannion will be as good as advertised this season.

“But he’s still 18 years old, 19 years old and he’s a small part of a big picture,” Miller said. “He’s a really integral part of our team this year, but he’s going to need a lot of help. He’s not going to be able to do it alone. And he’s learning. I believe this about Nico— if you were to judge him on where he was comfort-wise a month ago, he’s much further up the ladder today. And I believe he’ll continue to grow and develop. I think the striking part of his game as a point guard is that he’s an excellent shooter and he can score. He’s not just a distributor or a quarterback. He’s a quarterback who can make his teammates better but he also will have several big nights, scoring,”

Josh Green is “full go” and “physically unique”

Mannion’s top running mate will be his former travel ball teammate and fellow McDonald’s All-American Josh Green, who Miller said is “physically unique.”

“He’s every bit 6-foot-5, maybe 6-foot-6,” Miller said. “Tremendous athlete, very physical player. Has really long arms. I think his wingspan is right around 6-foot-11 ... Has (some of the things that maybe you loved about Nick Johnson—the way he jumps, how athletic he is, how versatile, the number of things that he can do on defense and offense. But yet maybe the best is yet to come because his skill will continue to catch up with his athleticism.”

Plus, Green has missed a lot of time over the last year and half due to a pair of shoulder surgeries, including one this past spring. Miller said Green is “full go” to begin the season.

“I don’t want to say he’s rusty, but I think the best is yet to come for him,” Miller said. “We’re obviously incredibly excited to have him. A lot like Nico ... he’s a part of a puzzle. He’s sometimes going to be called on to be a big part, but we’re going to win and lose as a team and these guys are going to develop and they’re going to have their bumps in the road.”

Zeke Nnaji has a good starting point

Maybe the most intriguing freshman is Zeke Nnaji, who Miller said on signing day is “one of the most versatile players” the Wildcats have recruited.

The Minnesotan is mobile, can play around and away from the basket (he once won a 3-point shooting contest), and has a long, strong frame that will enable him to make an immediate impact.

Nnaji is listed at 6-foot-11, 240 pounds and Miller said the freshman benched 185 pounds 19 times, the same reps Deandre Ayton used to pump. Miller also mentioned Nnaji is ahead of the curve defensively because he came from a solid high school program.

“You can tell if they’ve been held accountable on defense because right away they they play harder than most freshmen,” Miller said. “And I would say that’s the case with Zeke.”

Christian Koloko is “better than we thought”

A three-star recruit, Koloko was viewed as a project when he committed to Arizona. After all, he only recently moved to the United States from Cameroon, and has not been playing basketball for long.

But Miller said Tuesday that the long-armed 7-footer is “one of those rare recruits who is better than we thought.”

“And we obviously thought the world of him, that’s why we recruited him, we knew he had a bright future, but maybe one that’s more down the line than then here in the short term. But you never really know until these guys are here on campus how much they love the game and how smart they are,” Miller said.”

“Christian, for somebody who hasn’t played basketball for very long in his life, he’s very bright, picks things up easily, he’s a quick learner. And the other thing we’ve learned about him is Bill Walton always asked me every year, does that big man play basketball because he’s the tallest kid on the court? Or does he play basketball because he really loves the game? And I would say to Christian is the second type of kid. He loves the game, so he wants to work, he puts in extra work, it’s easy for him to want to be good. And I think it’s that combination with his talent that every month that he’s played here, he’s gotten better. Even this year, like whatever happens this year for him on the court, the sky is the limit and his future is more. It’s brighter than beyond his freshman year, but we’re really excited about him.”

Devonaire Doutrive might be Arizona’s most improved player

Arizona announced Devonaire Doutrive was transferring in June. But a month a half later, after some introspection, Miller said, Doutrive opted to return for his sophomore season.

Miller is glad he did, saying Doutrive might be the team’s most improved player.

“Which makes perfect sense,” Miller said. “Devonaire wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school, and he had plenty of other good options, but we’ve had plenty of other incoming recruits that have been higher ranked. But part of that with Devonaire is he’s a late bloomer. When he came here, he weighed below 170 (pounds) and yet he’s 6-5. So he needed time, he needed a year’s worth of practices, he needed to get a sense of what it felt like on and off the court here. He needed more time in our weight room, and you’ll see just physically he’s more mature, he’s bigger, stronger. Even a year ago with as slight as he was, one knack he has is an offensive rebounder. He could keep the ball alive and that’s a big skill. And I think with Devonaire this year, when you talk about perimeter depth, he’s somebody that we’re counting on to really improve from year one to year two.”

Aside from an improved physique, Miller said Doutrive now has a better understanding of what it takes to be successful on both ends of the court.

With Arizona lacking backcourt depth, Doutrive figures to be a key reserve this season, maybe even backing up Mannion at point guard at times.

UC Irvine graduate transfer Max Hazzard, who was lauded by Miller for his big-game experience, is the other option there.

“I think we’re all really excited about him coming back,” Miller said of Doutrive. “It was great for me to see his teammates’ reaction because nobody was happier to have him back than his teammates. And I think that says it all. A lot of times when a young guy leaves, you kind of sense that his teammates almost are kind of shaking their head that they made a good decision.”

Miller expecting tough non-conference slate

Arizona’s non-conference schedule features home games against Gonzaga, Illinois, and a NCAA Tournament-caliber New Mexico State team, a road game against Baylor, a neutral-site game against St. John’s in San Francisco and, potentially, tilts against UCF and Providence in Anaheim as part of the Wooden Legacy tournament.

Miller called it a balanced schedule that will give the Wildcats an opportunity to “learn a lot” and should put them in a good spot come Selection Sunday—assuming they perform well in those games, of course.

“The one thing about the NCAA (selection) committee, there’s no fraudulence when it comes to what they’re trying to reward,” Miller said. “Maybe a few years ago, one committee would react different than the next or the previous one. They want you to challenge yourself in the non-conference part of your schedule. They realize that you can’t control the conference that you’re in. And they’ll judge you on on everything the entirety. But the months of November and December, where the games played, who you play, how you do is very meaningful.”

While Arizona’s non-conference schedule isn’t extremely difficult, Miller said he wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona “takes some lumps” since it will be breaking in eight new players.

“A year ago, it was like the more we moved forward, the more it worked against us because we didn’t have great depth, especially up front,” Miller said. ‘Any injury or adversity, it could really paralyze our team. This year, my hope is that we can play through that. Not just on game day, but in our practices. We’ve been able to scrimmage more, go up and down earlier than we have before. And that’s just simply because we have more quality and more depth in. And I’d like to think that’ll help us.”

Stone Gettings’ shooting and passing completes a deep frontcourt

Miller said Arizona’s frontcourt, which is the deepest part of the roster, has “tools that can play different styles.”

Chase Jeter is the traditional back-to-the-basket center, Ira Lee brings energy and athleticism, Nnaji can do a little bit of everything, and Koloko is an athletic freak.

There there is Gettings, who Miller said is the “most different” from his counterparts because of his versatile offensive game. The Cornell grad transfer shot over 36 percent from 3 as a junior while also dishing 2.9 assists.

“You always look for diversity in a frontline so that not everybody’s the same,” Miller said. “In a different moment, against a different style of team, we have answers.”

Longer 3-point line will make a difference, Miller says

The NCAA extended the 3-point line by almost two feet, putting it on par with FIBA regulations. Miller, who has coached for USA Basketball, thinks it will make a big difference in the college game, especially for players who only occasionally shoot from the perimeter.

“It’s way more challenging for them to take that big step back,” he said. “Maybe the elite shooters will still shoot a very good percentage, but I do think it will affect both the defense and the offense.”

Miller thinks Pac-12 could have unprecedented depth

Miller thinks the Pac-12 will be “really strong” this season, citing the depth in the middle of the conference.

“There are times when we’ve had a very good upper tier or couple of teams that really could challenge deep into the NCAA Tournament, but maybe the bottom team or a couple teams at the bottom almost acted as an anchor against all of us,” he said. “But this year, I don’t believe that’s the case. I think the middle has never been stronger. It’s hard to differentiate maybe between the very top teams and maybe four through eight, four through nine.”

Miller explains why Red-Blue Game is so early this year

Arizona’s Red-Blue scrimmage is unusually early this season, taking place September 27 instead of sometime in October.

Miller listed two reasons for that. One, it allows Arizona to make an earlier impression on recruits. Two, it gives the current players a chance to get over their first-game jitters earlier than they normally would.

“So it allows us to get that done with and then move on and really get to real practices, the development part of our team,” Miller said.

Miller was diplomatic about NCAA investigation

Miller opened his presser by thanking the fans and UA administration for their support over the last two years as the program has been involved in FBI and NCAA investigations.

Miller then added he will continue to promote a culture of compliance “just like I have done for the last 10 plus years.”

“Moving forward, I’m also going to continue to follow our University of Arizona policy of not commenting on any part of any investigation that involves our university,” Miller said.

When later asked how Arizona has managed to maintain its recruiting prowess during the turmoil, Miller listed the program’s history, Tucson weather, and a dedicated fanbase.

Here’s his full opening statement: