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Underrated Cats? Arizona will be just fine

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NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If you were to catch a glimpse of most everyone’s Pac-12 predictions you will likely notice that, as per usual, Arizona appears near the top.

What’s different about this year though is that the word “State” follows.

Indeed, expectations for the rival Sun Devils have never been higher. They bring back a star in Remy Martin and his solid supporting cast was bolstered by the addition of Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley, a pair of highly-touted freshmen.

Now we all know preseason rankings don’t mean much. Arizona fans already know being picked to finish at the top of the standings does not guarantee you will, so the folks in Tempe should not be hanging anything next to their 2017 Non-Conference Schedule champs banner just yet.

But when it comes to that Arizona team, the one we’re more accustomed to seeing ranked and picked to finish at or near the top of the conference, this year you’ll have to read down a bit to find them.

That’s fine. In fact, it might even be preferable.

The tempered expectations are understandable, at least when you consider Arizona is replacing eight players off of last year’s team, five of whom were starters. Through that lens alone, there is much we do not know about the current roster.

But viewed through a different lens an image begins to emerge, and that is one of a team that is not short on talent.

This season the Cats added the fifth-best recruiting class in the country to a team that has a pair of transfers, James Akinjo and Jordan Brown, who are expected to have big roles.

Akinjo was the Big East Freshman of the Year in 2019, while Brown is a former McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit.

The freshmen as well as the traditional transfers may be the headliners, but the team also added grad transfer Terrell Brown to a roster that already included a now-healthy Jemarl Baker, a senior Ira Lee and an ever-improving Christian Koloko.

ESPN’s Jeff Borzello wrote that Akinjo, Jordan Brown, Terrell Brown and freshman Azulas Tubelis are four of the top 8 newcomers in college basketball this season. Meanwhile, fellow freshmen Kerr Kriisa, Dalen Terry, Daniel Batcho and Bennedict Mathurin all offer an intriguing blend of talent.

On paper, at least, Arizona has great guard depth, athleticism at the wings and impressive size in the front court.

On paper, the Wildcats will be very good.

The games are not played on paper and pretty much every player who will be relied on will be filling a role they have never been asked to fill before.

Head coach Sean Miller himself seemed to try and temper expectations by proclaiming this to be the least-experienced roster he has ever coached. All of that may certainly be true, but if there’s one thing we can say for certain it is hardly his least talented.

Thinking back, has there been an Arizona team with this much talent that had so little buzz?

On Wildcat Radio the 2015-16 team, featuring a freshman Allonzo Trier and seniors Ryan Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski, may have been the most apt comparison. That team suffered from following up a pair of Elite 8 losses while losing a considerable amount of star talent before winning 25 games but losing in the first round to Wichita State.

Even that team had some hype, if only because at that time Miller and the program were at a peak and there was a belief that he’d find a way to keep things rolling.

Nowadays there is little such belief, not with the team missing the tournament two years ago and then this last season underachieving before the pandemic shut everything down. The last few years of off-court drama that finally took a step forward with Arizona receiving a Notice of Allegations also helps to dampen the mood.

That story has many pages and chapters left before its conclusion and while it may end up being a simply awful read, we can keep our attention on the near term.

The last time Arizona didn’t enter the season with any kind of pressure was probably in Miller’s first two seasons as he was taking over a roster that had been decimated and needed to gain traction recruiting out West.

Those were interesting times, yes, but also somewhat exciting. Though Miller said recently he feels pressure to make deep tournament runs every season at Arizona, no reasonable fan would look at this year’s team say it’s either Final Four or failure.

Despite all the talent that has been assembled, most probably see this season, already set to be a strange one, as nothing more than a transition. Should this unique collection of players from all over the world coalesce into something better than expected, great.

It would not be a total surprise because again, the roster is not devoid of talent. Much of the mystery is surrounding the players who have joined the program from overseas, many of whom may be more ready to contribute as freshmen than, well, your traditional freshman.

Rarely has an Arizona team flown under the radar, but this one is set to do exactly that. It’s a change of pace from the norm and may be exactly what the program needs.