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Grading the 2020-21 Arizona basketball season

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While the best part of the college basketball season is just beginning, the Arizona Wildcats are at home this March because of a self-imposed postseason ban. They finished the 2020-21 season with a 17-9 record, including a 11-9 mark in the Pac-12.

How would you grade Sean Miller’s 12th campaign? Our staff members weighed in.

Ronnie Stoffle — B

All things considered, I think it’s fair to give this season a solid B. Given the major roster turnover (once again) but with lesser talent ratings than Nico Mannion and Josh Green, expectations were tempered. Not to mention playing during a global pandemic.

Unknowns are not always a bad thing and in this case they turned out to be pleasant surprises. We knew what James Akinjo brought to the table but the question was how would it fit with all the other new and wild-card pieces? The answer was great. He should be a shoe-in for All-Conference honors.

The wave of international recruits really made for the potential of a wide variance of outcomes. Azuolas Tubelis, Benn Mathurin and Kerr Kriisa all turned out to be wonderful surprises and excellent foundational pieces for next season.

Terrell Brown Jr. and Jordan Brown each possessed experience at the Division-1 level like Akinjo but they were largely unknowns as well. They each found their roles and were both very successful with them. Terrell stepped up big when Jemarl Baker Jr. went down and Jordan really found himself by providing offense for the second unit.

The only key returning pieces from last season were Baker, Christian Koloko and Ira Lee. Not a slight to any of them but that wasn’t expected to be a core for championship contention. Of course Akinjo and Jordan Brown were with the team last season for practice but playing in the games is much different.

Given the roster turnover, playing through the Covid-19 Health and Safety Protocols and the self-imposed postseason ban, I think finishing the season eight games over .500 (17-9) and a winning conference record (11-9) deserves an above-average grade.

Don’t forget this team also swept ASU for the first time since 2018 and it was supposedly their best roster in program history. That’s just gravy on the biscuit.

Adam Green — B+

By the standards we all want Arizona to be held to, this season was a disappointment. The Wildcats did not contend for the conference title, got swept by Oregon again and earned just one victory over a top-25 team. The team dropped four games at the McKale Center and was, in reality, just above average.

But this season did not deserve normal Arizona standards, and it would be unfair to judge the squad through that lens.

This team replaced all five of its starters from last season and returned all of three players who tallied any real minutes as a Wildcat. With so many new faces in prominent roles, and a freshman class that was filled with intrigue but lacked any kind of sure thing, expecting any kind of greatness was a mistake.

Add in the self-imposed postseason ban and you have a season that could have gone off the rails, but didn’t.

Instead Arizona competed, never quitting on the season and coming within a few shots of at least a couple more wins. That’s all well and good, but it’s not really the most important thing to come of it.

No, along with all that Arizona’s players improved and, if you view this as a transition year meant to set the program up for better things in the future, then it was an absolute success.

James Akinjo is better than advertised while Azuolas Tubelis and Benn Mathurin were more ready than anticipated. Jordan Brown found his niche, while Christian Koloko and Kerr Kriisa flashed. Dalen Terry came on strong late, too, while Jemarl Baker Jr. looked like a much improved player before he was lost for the season.

Give the bulk of the roster a full offseason, bringing with it time to get stronger and better, and you have the makings of a team that could be really, really good when it takes the court again in 2021.

The goal is to contend for titles, and while this year’s team did not it may have set the stage for next year’s to do exactly that.

Ryan Kelapire — C+

You know this season wasn’t a roaring success or failure because, if it was, there would be no doubt about where Arizona stands with Sean Miller right now.

The Wildcats finished in the middle of the Pac-12, which is where they were picked to finish, so they didn’t exceed expectations nor fall short of them. That’s where the C comes from.

I added the plus because they avoided COVID issues and several young players had solid seasons. James Akinjo is one of the best point guards in the Pac-12. Freshmen Azuolas Tubelis and Bennedict Mathurin are legit good starters. Maybe Kerr Kriisa too, though we didn’t see enough of him to make that conclusion because of a whacky NCAA suspension. Jordan Brown, Dalen Terry and Christian Koloko certainly had their moments. Terrell Brown didn’t score as much as I thought he would but was a very versatile player. Certainly better than other transfers Arizona has added in the past.

Even before the postseason ban, many Arizona fans viewed this as a rebuilding year anyway, so the fact you can look at the roster and say, “Hey, this team could be very good next season” is a promising sign. They finished with a top-20 offense and, had they just been a little better defensively, could have finished in the top third of the conference.

That said, the problem with college basketball is you can never bank on a player returning from one year to the next. All you can do now is hope that as many of these guys as possible stay in school and the Wildcats can improve from, say, 11 conference wins to 13+ next year.

But if a bunch of them leave and Arizona has to replace several starters again? Well, then this season was basically a throwaway.

Brian J. Pedersen — B

Among the more obscure statistics that KenPom tracks is Minutes Continuity, which is described as a measurement of the percentage of a team’s minutes that are played by the same players as the season before. Arizona’s percentage ended up at 15.1, which ranked 332nd out of the 343 Division I teams that participated in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

Translation: Arizona broke in a lot of new guys this year, and somehow made that work. Definitely much better than in most recent years.

This team got better as the season went on, even if the results didn’t show it. They looked more comfortable playing with (and off of) each other, with roles getting clearly defined and the minutes spread out accordingly. It makes for a lot of hope for the future, assuming the “lion’s share” of the team, as Sean Miller referred to it in his final postgame press conference, come back.

Needless to say, if he doesn’t, very few of them will.

Had the self-imposed postseason ban not happened, might things have gone differently? Sure, but which way? Might the pressure of trying to get into the NCAA Tournament have led to more losses? We’ll never know.

All we do know is this team was fun to watch, which is it’s own special accomplishment.

Ezra Amacher — C

I would give this season a solid C. Entering the fall of 2020, we knew Arizona would be in for a major rebuilding year given the team had lost its entire starting lineup and the vast majority of its scoring production. When Daniel Batcho injured his knee during fall camp and word got out that Kerr Kriisa wouldn’t be eligible for a majority of the season, Arizona’s depth took take a major hit. And once Jemarl Baker suffered his season-ending wrist injury, the team’s Pac-12 title hopes went out the window. With little to play for, Arizona accepted mediocrity. Losing at home to an average Stanford team stands out as the worst defeat of the season in my book.

Let’s not totally ignore that there were some great moments, including Azuolas Tubelis’ game winning shots at ASU and at home against Washington. But this isn’t a season I will look back on with any fondness in a few years from now. I probably speak for many fans when I say that by February I was simply ready for this season to be over and turn the page for (hopefully) a better 2021-22 campaign. I am happy to hear that nearly everyone should return next season. This group deserves an honest run at making the NCAA Tournament, something that was never going to be in the cards this year.