By scrambling to assemble a five-man class that included Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill soon after he was hired in April 2009, Sean Miller helped keep the Arizona Wildcats competitive after years of coaching and recruiting instability.
But even then, Miller said the full impact of his recruiting would be felt with the 2012 and 2013 classes, with players that Miller had a chance to develop long-term relationships with.
Well, those players are here now. And, as a result, the Wildcats are expected to win the Pac-12 and challenge for their first Final Four in 13 years.
Arizona is loaded with talent up front, with well-regarded freshman Aaron Gordon joining improving sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, plus potential stretch-forward help from Kansas transfer Zach Peters.
There’s solid defense all the way around, with Tarczewski clogging the lane, spidery freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the wing and a backcourt full of emerging stoppers in Nick Johnson, T.J. McConnell and Jordin Mayes.
And, for the first time in Miller’s Arizona tenure, there’s a true point guard, McConnell, to run the show.
But there are some issues. The Wildcats must find a way to replace the leadership of Hill, the gamesmanship of Mark Lyons and the courage of Kevin Parrom.
They also need to develop a shooter or two. Johnson, Mayes, McConnell and Peters are all respected shooters but none has developed the consistent production yet that Hill, Lyons, Parrom and even now-departed Grant Jerrett offered.
So, while the rest of the country views the Wildcats as highly as it has since the Lute Olson days, Miller still isn’t quite sure what he’s got.
“We have a number of guys we’re going to count on who haven’t done it or who have to do it better,” Miller said. “And when you think about what we lost – Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom, they were three very old, experienced players – one (Hill) was a first-round pick and another (Lyons) was our leading scorer.
“I think we’re one of the teams that has a promising season ahead, but how good we’re going to be remains to be seen.”
The promise comes from the last four recruiting classes. Here’s how each one will impact this year’s Wildcats:
CLASS OF 2010
• Jordin Mayes, guard
A top-50 prospect out of Westchester High School in Los Angeles, Mayes jumped into the spotlight as a freshman when he hit 10 straight three-pointers between the Pac-10 and NCAA tournaments in 2010-11. He also made four threes that proved the difference when UA beat Texas in the second game of the NCAA tournament, sending the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, Calif.
But he underwent surgery for a stress fracture in the summer of 2011 and never was the same as a sophomore, when he hit only one three-pointer after New Year’s Day.
But Mayes bought into the defensive end as his offensive game suffered early last season, then caught fire toward the end of the Pac-12 season. With no proven shooters, the UA needs Mayes to bring that momentum into this season. Even though he’s a quiet personality, Mayes might also help with leadership as the team’s only senior.
“He has the respect of our team quite a bit because of what he’s been through,” Miller said.
CLASS OF 2011
• Nick Johnson, guard
Known mostly as a human pogo stick as a freshman, throwing down highlight-reel dunks in nearly every game, Johnson has expanded his skill set since arriving at Arizona.
Last season he evolved into the team’s best perimeter defender, and this season he’s been aiming to improve his perimeter shooting at a time when the Wildcats desperately need it.
Already a well-liked personality, Johnson is also aiming to fill Arizona’s big leadership void without Hill and Lyons around.
“I’ve been kind of in a back leadership role my first two years,” Johnson said. “I was a younger guy, so I didn’t really get noticed or anything like that.”
He will now.
CLASS OF 2012
• Kaleb Tarczewski, center
• Brandon Ashley, forward
• Gabe York, guard
• T.J. McConnell, guard (transfer from Duquesne)
• Matt Korcheck, forward (transfer from Cochise College)
After complaining of “death by inches” during the 2011-12 season, with 6-foot-7-inch Jesse Perry sometimes playing center, Miller quickly fixed the problem via recruiting. His first powerhouse recruiting class, which also included the now departed Jerrett, immediately gave the Wildcats size and talent up front.
Now, with the addition of McConnell and Korcheck after redshirt seasons, the 2012 class gives the Wildcats their core up front, their first-ever true point guard under Miller in McConnell and another promising, if still somewhat unproven, shooter in York.
Tarczewski already led the team in rebounding last season, while he and Ashley are the second- and third-leading returning scorers behind Johnson.
It wouldn’t surprise if both significantly added to their totals this season, with Hill and Lyons having vacated over 700 shots between them.
At least that’s what Miller is hoping for. Tarczewski averaged his 6.1 rebounds while playing only 22 minutes a game, meaning he actually pulled down 12 boards for every 40 minutes played. And, with a slimmer look this season, Tarczewski will play 4-6 minutes more this season, Miller said.
“I think he will only get better,” Miller said. “He’s even stronger but he’s missing the 15-20 pounds that he carried last year. He’s worked really hard in the weight room, and he wants to be a great player.”
Maybe Ashley now does, too. The talented, rangy forward was sometimes lost among the Wildcats’ older players a year ago, and he fell out of the starting lineup midway through the Pac-12 season in part because of his defense.
Then he was cut from USA Basketball’s U19 team, while Gordon not only made that team but earned the MVP award for the entire U19 World Championships.
All that should be enough to kick in Ashley’s motor this time. Miller said “part of Aaron’s disposition has made Brandon better,” and Ashley already showed the newfound assertiveness in UA’s Red-Blue Game scrimmage earlier this month, collecting 14 points and 12 rebounds while facing Gordon.
“Brandon sometimes is the guy that not a lot of people are talking about, but you guys know as well as me that some of the most talented players make their biggest jump between their freshmen and sophomore years – especially if they had a big role as a freshman,” Miller said. “Brandon not only had a big role as a freshman but he’s very talented and he’s put a lot of work in. Just watching his transformation, even early here in our team workouts, he knows where to be and how to do it so much better than he did a year ago.”
York didn’t have a key role as a freshman, and in fact didn’t play at all in 20 of 35 games last season. But he showed signs of a future by playing well in early-season games with Long Beach State, NAU and East Tennessee State, while he also briefly earned a spot in the UA rotation midway through the Pac-12 season.
What’s more, unlike what many elite-level players might have done in this era, York did not transfer at the end of the season out of frustration. He returned and kept working.
With Arizona desperately needing shooters this time around, York is likely to get rewarded with every chance to crack the rotation.
“I think Gabe, because of the way he plays and our need, he’ll have a role,” Miller said. “And he could have a very big role.”
McConnell’s role has been sharply defined since the day he opted to transfer to Arizona from Duquesne in the spring of 2012: He would be the Wildcats’ first true point guard under Miller.
Well, actually, Arizona believed it had a true point guard in 2011-12 with Josiah Turner, but that experiment failed when Turner was suspended twice during the season and left town after one season with a pending DUI case.
With Turner out, McConnell opted to transfer upward to UA for his final two years of eligibility. He sat out the required redshirt season last year, learning Miller’s system, and is now expected to be a significant factor on both sides of the ball.
Johnson said McConnell will even “pass up a layup to get you an open shot,” and the Wildcats are expecting McConnell will better find UA’s big men, who didn’t get the ball as often as their coaches would have liked last season.
“When you have a point guard who’s always thinking about making his teammates better, who knows what the coaching staff wants, who thinks in terms of scoring second and passing first, it makes the game look different,” Miller said. McConnell “can make the game easier for his teammates sometimes.”
McConnell also may actually wind up having just as big an impact on the other side of the ball. He’s a pesky defender who was third nationally in steals per game (2.8) at Duquesne in 2011-12.
“On the defensive end, I call him a bulldog,” Johnson said. “He’s going to be great for our team this year.”
Korcheck also spent last season sitting out but he did so voluntarily, knowing his playing time would be limited with Ashley, Tarczewski, Jerrett and Hill clogging up so many minutes inside.
Now he’s expected to help in a backup capacity, adding physicality and rebounding while giving teammates a rest or relief from foul trouble. Moreover, Korcheck says he’s fine with doing just that.
“I believe he has the right mindset and attitude to come in the game and defend, to rebound, to screen, to once in a while to score,” Miller said. He can “sub in for a fatigued player, or a player who’s in foul trouble … and if he can do those things he’ll really be a valuable member of our team.”
CLASS OF 2013
• Aaron Gordon, forward
• Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, forward
• Zach Peters, forward
• Elliott Pitts, guard
In today’s hype-filled recruiting market, Gordon might sound like just another too-good-to-be-true incoming freshman star.
Except he really may be all that.
“Aaron is a special player,” says Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who recruited Gordon hard for years, only to lose out to Arizona. “He’s one of the rare, rare young kids who come into college extremely talented and yet has a motor.”
That’s what Miller raves about, too. When Miller talks about Gordon, it isn’t so much about his considerable talent as much as his motor, work ethic and maturity. And the fact that, even with that intense drive, he’s not a machine, either.
“His greatest gift he’s given his teammates and us is that he’s an incredibly hard worker,” Miller said. “He’s extremely focused. He’s somebody who is tireless in his own approach to be great.
“But yet, at the same time, because of how he plays the game and how he conducts himself, he’s a fun guy to have as a teammate.”
On the court, Gordon is so good that, while Miller is normally hesitant to play freshmen at both forward spots, he’s planning to do just that. Even at 6-8, Gordon can guard perimeter players, Miller said, because of his athleticism and intensity.
Because he can play both forward spots, likely starting at small forward and moving inside, Gordon gives coaches the flexibility to better match up with opponents or compensate for underperforming teammates.
Where he plays “will have a lot to do with what others are doing,” Miller said.
Hollis-Jefferson may have to come off the bench behind Gordon, but it would hardly be surprising if he collects starter’s minutes. Hollis-Jefferson isn’t known for shooting but loves to slice his way to the basket – collecting 18 points in the Red Blue Game mostly by doing so — and is a sticky defender who can guard a number of positions.
Like Gordon, his teammate on USA Basketball’s Nike Hoop Summit team last spring, Hollis-Jefferson also has a rugged intensity.
“His wingspan is more than 7 foot and he really uses that on the defensive end,” Miller said.
“Close to the basket he pays bigger than his actual height. He’s a great competitor.”
A backup shooting guard, Pitts may not make Arizona’s rotation, and he may even redshirt, but that’s not because of his talent or lack of effort. Pitts is roundly praised for his approach and shooting, but he’s still just 18 years old and has only about 175 pounds on his 6-5 frame.
“When he weighs 185 or 190 … some of the things he doesn’t do well right now he will do,” Miller said. “Some of the things he does well right now I think he can be great at. He can be a contributor to this year’s team but whether he is or isn’t, his best days are ahead of him.”
If the Wildcats get anything from Peters this season, it will be a bonus. A year ago, it wasn’t clear if Peters would keep playing at Kansas, or anywhere, for that matter: He suffered five concussions over a 15-month period between the summer of 2011 and fall of 2012, leaving him literally in a fog.
Peters withdrew from Kansas last winter and went home to the Dallas area, unable to compute math equations as simple as two times minus-five, according to his father. But by late January, he began making huge improvements and began considering other schools later in the spring.
He opted to transfer to Arizona in May, and was cleared last month to play immediately instead of sitting out the redshirt season required of transfers.
But as preseason practices went on, Peters was still waiting for medical clearance to practice in full-contact drills. Miller said earlier this month that Peters had a chance to join the team fully by the end of October.
“We’ve moved at a snail’s pace for all the right reasons,” Miller said. “But as we’ve moved slowly, he’s also really progressed long term, in terms of his health and long-term projections.”
Peters has been taking part in all but the full-contact drills and from that alone, Miller said he’s convinced Peters can help the Wildcats. With full health, Peters could offer UA the same kind of “stretch four” role – a big man who can stretch defense by shooting well from the perimeter — as Jerrett did last season before leaving for professional basketball.
“Adding both his shooting and his skill level and size would be a nice shot in the arm,” Miller said. “I don’t know if Zach’s going to be a guy who’s going to take 37 minutes, but … no question he would be a solid piece” of the rotation.
Putting all these recruiting classes together gives the Wildcats a pretty well-rounded team with exceptional skills in some areas.
In Gordon, Ashley and Tarczewski, there’s a solid frontcourt, with potential shooting help from Peters and big-body help from Korcheck. The backcourt has multiskilled veterans in Johnson and McConnell, with Mayes, York and maybe even Pitts adding shooting help. There are defensive stoppers all around the perimeter, especially with Hollis-Jefferson.
But Arizona does lack proven outside shooters and doesn’t have a clear-cut go-to guy entering the season, with Johnson or Gordon appearing most likely to grow into that role.
Miller says he’s concerned that so many of his returnees are sliding into new roles, too.
So even though the Wildcats were made clear-cut favorites to win the Pac-12 and were ranked No. 5 in the USA Today coaches Top 25 poll, Miller said they will need time to develop.
For a while, the Wildcats might have to get by with defense, and Miller’s OK with that because of what it could lead to, eventually.
“We have a real upside on defense,” Miller said. “I would say our talent is more on that side. Not that we can’t score — we have good offensive players. But we have size and length and we also have some really good quickness and have some unique defenders.
“It’s something we talk a lot about. I think for our team to accomplish some very lofty goals you would have to point to us becoming a great defensive team.”