The Arizona men’s basketball enters this season with a reasonable amount of expectations. It’s 17th in the preseason AP poll and the Pac-12 media has the Wildcats finishing second.
Not bad when you consider the team that won 33 games last season is replacing three of its to five scorers from last season, all of whom went in the NBA Draft.
Then again, the team that won 33 games last season was tasked with filling the void left by the departures of thee of its top five scorers from the season before, so this is somewhat familiar territory in Wildcat Nation.
As is, of course, being ranked and entering the season with high expectations.
That isn’t to say this season has a “Final Four or Bust” mentality, nor should it. Just because last season’s squad quickly put things together does not mean this year’s will, and despite the talent that has been lost the Wildcats will not be sneaking up on anyone.
The exhibition opener against Western Oregon, a 91-61 win, was great because it showed us that without a doubt Arizona has enough players on the roster to be able to weather a few injuries and still have at least the minimum available players to not have to forfeit.
Other than that there are some things we know, and others that we think. Let’s break ‘em down:
We know that Pelle Larsson and Azuolas Tubelis will lead the way. The former seems ready to take a huge leap, while the latter is a proven talent who is looking to put a disastrous NCAA Tournament behind him. Both have star potential, with the ability to score, defend and distribute. Their experience both in this system and in college basketball should lead to them being among the conference’s very best players by the end of the season.
We think there will be a bevvy of contributors elsewhere on the roster. Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey, Adama Ball, Cedric Henderson and Oumar Ballo each have potential to put the ball in the bucket, though the team cannot expect all of them to be productive every single night. Getting good games out of two or three of that group, along with production from Tubelis and Larsson, would be enough. The rest of the roster is less proven and thus cannot be counted on, at least not yet.
We know the team will not play as fast as last season. That’s not to say they will become a methodical plodding offense, because that’s just not in Lloyd’s nature. But last year’s roster was constructed in a manner that lent itself to playing at a ludicrous speed; this year’s, not as much. The high-flying Benn Mathurin and Dalen Terry are in the NBA, as is Christian Koloko, the big man who ran the court like a gazelle.
We think despite that, Arizona will have no trouble scoring. The ability to manufacture points in the half court brings about the kind of consistency a team needs when not able to get out and run. There will be nights where the 3-point shot is falling and games where the Cats create turnovers. Being able to score without those benefits will help.
We know the team once again has size. Its starting lineup is projected to be:
Not bad at all.
The shortest player expected to get minutes off the bench is 6-foot-2, while the rest are 6-6 or taller. Now, we know being tall doesn’t make a team great, but tall and skilled is a different story.
We think Arizona’s tall is, in fact, skilled. Lloyd wouldn’t recruit them if they weren’t. This year’s class is loaded with potential, with the likes of Henri Veesar, Dylan Anderson and Filip Borovicanin measuring 6-foot-9 or taller and all showing the kind of skill that could make them excellent fits not only for this system, but also get them on the court as freshmen.
We know the new white uniforms look really good.
We think the road blues will be equally nice.
As for the reds ... moving on.
We know Kriisa needs to have a big season, and it starts with consistency. The point guard is destined to be one of the most popular players to ever don an Arizona uniform, and he has the ability to be one of the best point guards in the conference. While his primary responsibility is dishing out the ball, the Wildcats will need more from Kriisa if they are to reach their full potential. He failed to reach double figures in 18 of 33 games last season, and that just won’t cut it. Being less reliant on the 3-point shot will help.
We think Kriisa will not have to be the third scoring option. Ballo and Ramey are strong candidates to be third and fourth, respectively, in points per game, while Bal is a dark horse candidate to climb into the top four. What Arizona lacks in a superstar such as Mathurin it could make up for with a more spread out scoring approach. Being less reliant on any single player could make the team more difficult to defend over the course of 40 minutes.
We know Arizona will need Ballo to handle the increased minutes. The big man was effective last season in just more than 15 minutes per game, but he had the benefit of playing behind — and sometimes with — Koloko. There is no such safety net this season, with the depth behind Ballo young and unproven. His conditioning is improved, which will help, but he also must limit fouls so he can stay on the floor. Arizona will need him.
We think there will be some growing pains in late-game situations. Last season the Cats had Mathurin, but whose hands will they put the ball in this year? That will need to sort itself out, probably.
We know a fast start like the one the team got off to last year will be tough to pull off.
We think it can be done, however. The nonconference schedule offers some challenges but none that Arizona shouldn’t be able to handle.
We know this team will be good again. They may need a bit of time to really gel and sort out roles, but the talent is there to finish near the top of the conference standings and earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
We think this year’s team will, like last year’s, reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Whether or not they advance beyond that, well, we’ll just have to see.