Sean Miller uses new-school approach to find right pieces
2015-16 UA basketball season preview
The 2015-16 Arizona Wildcats are modern day elite-level college basketball, defined.
Here’s a program that is coming off two straight Elite Eight appearances, lost four starters from last season, put six guys in the past three NBA drafts … and yet is still a preseason top-10 pick.
How? It isn’t because of old-school roster building. That only works when you have the recruiting pull of Kentucky, able to bring in a litter of five-star talent every single year.
Instead, the 2015-16 Wildcats were built with a more contemporary approach, with coach Sean Miller pulling together a mix of high-level transfers, returning veterans and talented newcomers.
Their roster literally has it all this season: a top-five recruiting class headed by high-scoring wing Allonzo Trier, a former junior college player of the year (Kadeem Allen), an international player (Dusan Ristic), a four-year transfer who learned UA’s system last season (Ryan Anderson) and a grad transfer (Mark Tollefsen) … plus four other returners with a combined nine seasons of UA playing experience.
While Miller has brought in many of those kinds of pieces before — juco forward Jesse Perry in 2010, grad transfer Mark Lyons in 2012 and four-year transfer T.J. McConnell in 2013 — he’s never had them all together at the same time, mixed in with so much freshman and returning talent.
But that means he’s also never had to deal with stirring together such a disparate group, trying to build chemistry when individual agendas could be pointing in different directions.
Miller is aware of that, but also confident after seeing positive signs once the Wildcats came together for conditioning drills in August.
“Every year is a new puzzle,” Miller said. “We’re not at that point yet where all of us are on the same page, and you have same roles defined. But I’m very confident in the group of kids we have.
“I would say we have a very hardworking team, a very unselfish team. How that moves forward will be a huge challenge for us. But the team’s chemistry has been great.”
That’s kind of what Anderson’s Twitter page suggests. Scrolled across the top is the hashtag: #JustUs.
That isn’t really a statement that the Wildcats are in this all alone — they do brag constantly about their fans, after all — but about the truth that they don’t have a consensus NBA lottery pick on the roster, a guy like Stanley Johnson last season or Aaron Gordon in 2013-14 who attracted so much individual attention.
Instead, the focus entering this season is on the collection of talent the Wildcats have.
“Last year, a guy like Stanley Johnson, everybody wants to know what’s Stanley Johnson gonna do,” Anderson said. “We don’t necessarily have that guy, but we have a lot of really talented guys who are gonna make a lot of money playing the game.”
Maybe that’s a good thing. While Miller says it will take a while to mesh the Wildcats together, anticipating a peak well after New Year’s, Arizona may have a head start on team-building.
“Our team’s chemistry at this time a year ago might not have been in a very good place but I think we eventually got there,” Miller said. “We had a really close-knit, great group. You have to go through the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs, to be able to get there.
“Because we haven’t played a game (this season), the things you look for are the work ethic of the team, how we get along with each other and how coachable we are. All those things are great.”
Here’s a breakdown of what Miller and his staff have been mixing together so far:
Arizona lost one of its two five-star freshmen on Oct. 22, when small forward Ray Smith tore his right ACL. There’s no question the loss was profound: Smith was not only the team’s only prototypical small forward but also a high-character person who had patiently rehabilitated the left ACL he tore in July 2014.
“The news of his injury is incredibly disappointing on several levels,” Miller said in a statement.
However, the Wildcats may have enough pieces collectively to fill in for Smith, and one of them is UA’s other five-star recruit, Allonzo Trier.
Trier, a prolific scorer at Findlay Prep last season, is big and strong enough to play small forward if needed. He’s also likely to pop up at shooting guard, likely starting or playing a significant reserve role at either spot.
“I’m versatile,” Trier said. “I think I’ll be doing a little bit of everything. … They’re just going to use me the best way they can to be successful.”
Trier was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine at age 13 and has dealt with attention his entire life, but Miller indicated he can fit smoothly into the team fabric.
“Allonzo has scored so much at every level he’s at … a lot like Stanley (Johnson), sometimes guys like him are, ‘Get out of the way, let me score,’” Miller said. “But I would much rather have to pull a guy back than tell him to go.”
Trier learned to play with other elite talent around him during the FIBA U19 World Championships over the summer, when he played for the USA Basketball team that Miller coached.
Another wing player, Justin Simon, received a taste of USA Basketball when he was invited to its U18 training camp in 2014, and there’s never been any doubt about his personality fitting in to a team.
He’s likely to be a backup combo guard as a freshman and, perhaps just as important, a major asset in the locker room.
“Justin has been a real pleasure to be around,” Miller said. “He’s a great kid. He’s here for all the right reasons, is willing to listen and learn, doing the best he can academically and shows up on time in everything that we do.
“I know those are things that maybe don’t mean a lot, but it has everything to do with his development. Where he’ll be a few years from now, three months from now, is going to be a much better place because he has a tremendous work ethic and he’s very talented.”
The position that Arizona’s fourth freshman, center Chance Comanche, is in suggests a chemistry risk: He’s good enough to start or play a major role for just about any other Pac-12 team … but has two 7-foot NBA prospects ahead of him at center in Kaleb Tarczewski and Ristic.
But Comanche’s mother is a former Long Beach State standout player who understands the game. She knows what it takes sometimes, and maybe her son does, too. So if Comanche can stay patient, and probably accept a redshirt freshman season while he gains strength, a payoff is likely in the future.
“When we recruited Chance … we were on the same page, that Chance’s best days are ahead of him and to evaluate him on his first year at Arizona will only be a snapshot of what he can become,” Miller said. “He runs well, catches the ball, has a quick jump on him and he also has a desire to be a really good player, which is exciting.”
Instead of getting locked into a long-term deal with the Red Star of Belgrade — where he had played with former UA forward Ivan Radenovic — Dusan Ristic, a Serbian, opted to try the U.S. route to pro ball.
That meant moving to high school in Kansas in January 2014 and gaining strength and defensive skills as a freshman at Arizona last season — all while trying to learn a new language and culture.
It hasn’t been easy. While Ristic’s offensive talents were immediately on display at McKale Center during the 2014 Red-Blue Game, when he scored 14 points, his defense limited opportunities on the court during the regular season. He scored 12 points in 11 first-half minutes against UCLA in January, but was yanked in the second half when UCLA’s Kevon Looney tore through the Wildcats’ interior defense.
That may not be a problem this season. Ristic dramatically changed his body in the offseason, reducing his body fat and keeping a solid 245 pounds on his 7-foot frame.
Ristic’s play could lead to more playing time. Miller could move Tarczewski to power forward for stretches so both big men can be on the floor at the same time.
“With Dusan’s improvement, there are times it’s going to make sense to give him more opportunity,” Miller said. Pairing Ristic with Tarczewski “gives us a much different look. Think about the differences of having those two in together instead of only one.”
THE FOUR-YEAR TRANSFER
On the surface, Ryan Anderson’s decision to leave Boston College as a junior after the 2013-14 season may have appeared odd: He would have to sit out the redshirt year required of undergraduate transfers in order to play only one more season.
But it actually made a lot of sense. Anderson suffered shoulder pain during his junior season at BC, even though he was still honorable mention All-ACC, and he needed offseason surgery that would probably have kept him out until December.
So Anderson opted to transfer to Arizona in summer 2014 and recover from the surgery while learning Miller’s system.
In the meantime, he also became what Miller says is one of the team’s best leaders, a guy who constantly organized offseason team outings and other interaction.
“He’s older, he’s smart, he’s a great teammate,” Miller said. “He loves to do things for his teammates.”
On the court, Anderson’s mobility, hustle, and assertiveness may make him the Wildcats’ leading rebounder, while Miller said he’s also a “very crafty and willing passer.”
THE GRAD TRANSFER
Anderson says he and San Francisco grad transfer Mark Tollefsen are versatile players who can play both forward positions, and especially without Smith, that’s an important point.
Tollefsen didn’t have the year-long education in the UA program that Anderson had, having played for USF last season before becoming immediately eligible as a grad transfer. But all signs suggest he will be a major factor, too.
Tollefsen will likely start or play a big role at small forward, where Miller is likely to trust him defensively even at 6 feet 9 inches: At USF, Tollefsen proved himself an able enough wing defender that Dons coach Rex Walters put him on BYU guard Tyler Haws and even 5-10 all-league guard Anthony Ireland of Loyola Marymount.
“He can really jump and he’s very mobile,” Miller said of Tollefsen. He’s “just a very intelligent player who can do a lot of different things. I’m really glad we were able to add him this spring.”
THE JUCO TRANSFER
Even though he was the junior college player of the year at Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College in 2013-14, Kadeem Allen may be one of the Wildcats’ biggest mysteries of the preseason.
For one thing, his Hutchinson games were not widely seen and his competition was different than it will be in the Pac-12. Allen plays both guard spots and it’s not clear where his best opportunity will be at Arizona; he’s a natural two-guard but played the point out of necessity as a freshman at Hutchinson.
In addition, nobody could see him last season because he only played in closed practices. Allen redshirted because the Wildcats were loaded with backcourt talent that included McConnell, Johnson, Gabe York and Elliott Pitts.
So it’s not clear this time where he plays, or how much, or how effectively. But he’ll play. Miller has already indicated he’s the No. 2 option at point guard behind Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Allen has the ability to get to the basket, Miller says, and the potential to become one of the Wildcats’ best perimeter defenders.
If nothing else, Allen brings a much different look than Jackson-Cartwright to the point: He’s 5 inches taller, 35 pounds heavier and boasts a scoring ability that commands respect.
“He can play both positions, so it’s tough to pigeonhole him,” Miller said. “But that’s what you like about him.
“Kadeem is a guard. He’s a player. He does a lot of different things. We have to be careful trying not to make him something he’s not, and embracing the qualities that he brings to the table. Because he brings quite a few to the table.”
THE PROGRAM GUYS
Incoming talent and veteran transfers may be particularly critical for this year’s Wildcats. However, nothing can replace time spent in the UA program, the day-to-day experience of practicing, conditioning and learning.
In Tarczewski, York, Pitts and Jackson-Cartwright, the Wildcats have four guys who’ve been through plenty of it already.
Tarczewski is a three-year starter who is on track to become the Wildcats’ all-time winningest player sometime in January or February. He’s already been a part of 92 wins, just 17 behind leader Matt Muehlebach (1988-91).
While Tarczewski’s stats dipped slightly from his sophomore to junior seasons, Miller has consistently praised his defense and said he now has a firmer grasp of playing within a team system.
“Part of what you get as an older player is you understand the game better, how it works with the nine other people on the court,” Miller said. “He will have the ability to do more because he can do more things, and his teammates know how to play alongside him better.”
York played in only 15 games as a lightly used freshman in 2012-13 but has been a part-time starter since then. York started over eventual first-round NBA pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the beginning of last season.
Pitts has provided shooting off the bench and, as a big wing guard, grown into a reliable defender. He took advantage of an opportunity to play more as a freshman after Brandon Ashley was lost to a foot injury and was a regular rotation player last season as a sophomore.
Smith’s injury suggests things could open up further for Pitts this time, too, while York will be expected to continue expanding his game beyond shooting from the perimeter.
Both York and Pitts will be judged on their defense as much as their shooting. Miller needs a perimeter stopper or two to replace the role that Hollis-Jefferson, McConnell and Johnson took on in recent seasons.
“The big challenge for Gabe isn’t on offense,” Miller said. “It’s to continually develop as a defensive player.”
While Jackson-Cartwright is only a sophomore, he’s essentially a veteran of the program, having committed to the Wildcats during his junior season of high school. Jackson-Cartwright spent his senior year dialed into UA’s program, then spent his freshman year behind McConnell, whose hard-nosed, pass-first style ideally matched Miller’s philosophy.
This time, Jackson-Cartwright is expected to take over the point full-time, and with an extra 20 pounds of strength that was needed on his 5-10 frame.
“I believe that everything he does well, he’ll do better,” Miller said. “And some of the things we worried about and we needed to address, he’s made huge gains. Because he’s just physically stronger right now.”
But it’s also the veterans’ mental edge that Miller values as much as the physical.
He’s hoping that pays off in crunch time, at some road venue, where fans are yelling at ear-piercing decibels.
“There’s something to be said about going into (a difficult road) environment and still win. It’s hard,” Miller said. “It’s part of the culture that we’ve developed and why experience is so important. If you look at somebody like Kaleb or Gabe, they’ve been in those moments. They can help our young players understand what it feels like.”
And, maybe, the veterans will help the Wildcats keep winning at a top-10 level. Just like they’re expected to.
Bonus: How Miller’s Wildcats have been built
Finding the right mix in college basketball not only involves experimenting, juggling and chemistry building, but also plenty of volume.
The game is just that fluid today.
“We’ve signed 35 guys in seven years,” UA coach Sean Miller said, counting the 2009 class he scraped together after he took the job in April of that year. “If you had told me that I would sign 35 guys in seven years, I’d say `I’m probably not going to be the coach at Arizona.’
While that average of five new players a year would have raised alarm bells when Miller played for Pitt in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the annual increases in transfers and early pro departures have elite coaches basically recruiting a new potential starting five every year.
Here’s how Miller built his six previous Arizona teams:
Scenario: Two years of interim coaching staffs seriously damaged Arizona’s recruiting, but Miller tried to scrape together what he could in the spring of 2009.
Returnees: G Nic Wise (Sr.), F Jamelle Horne (Jr.), G Kyle Fogg (So.), G Brendon Lavender (So.), C Alex Jacobson (So.), G D.J. Shumpert (So.), G Garland Judkins (So.)
Freshmen: C Kyryl Natyazhko, F Kevin Parrom, G MoMo Jones, F Derrick Williams, F Solomon Hill
Incoming transfers: None
Early departures: Judkins transferred in midseason, Shumpert did so in the spring.
Chemistry level: Cool. Miller persuaded Wise to return for a senior year and be a “bridge” to the new staff, and he was able to sell plenty of playing time to help land Williams and Jones. But the Wildcats weren’t deep, cohesive or experienced enough to go anywhere in the postseason, only breaking .500 thanks to Wise’s last-second heroics in two early season games.
Finish: Lost to UCLA in Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals
Scenario: With Williams as the breakout star and Jones as the chest-thumping leader, the Wildcats surpassed all expectations by reaching the Elite Eight.
Returnees: F Jamelle Horne (Sr.), G Kyle Fogg (Jr.), G Brendon Lavender (Jr.), C Alex Jacobson (Jr.), C Kyryl Natyazhko (So.), F Kevin Parrom (So.), G MoMo Jones (So.), F Derrick Williams (So.), F Solomon Hill (So.)
Freshmen: G Daniel Bejarano, G Jordin Mayes.
Incoming transfers: F Jesse Perry (John A Logan CC)
Early departures: Williams left for the NBA draft after the season, Jones transferred to Iona and Bejarano transferred to Colorado State.
Chemistry level: Warm. The Wildcats rallied around a “We Never Left” slogan, but they generally went as far as their two stars would take them. Jones led them to an unforgettable triple-overtime win at Cal that ultimately helped UA win the Pac-10 by a game, and Williams was the hero of three NCAA tournament wins, the biggest over Duke in the Sweet 16.
Finish: Lost to Connecticut in NCAA Elite Eight
2011-12 REALITY CHECK
Scenario: While the Wildcats adopted the slogan “We Never Left” in 2010-11, they actually did leave the national scene in 2011-12 without Williams and Jones around, re-exposing roster damage from the interim years before Miller arrived.
Returnees: G Kyle Fogg (Sr.), G Brendon Lavender (Sr.), F Jesse Perry (Sr.), C Alex Jacobson (Sr.), C Kyryl Natyazhko (Jr.), F Kevin Parrom (Jr.), F Solomon Hill (Jr.), G Jordin Mayes (So.)
Freshmen: G Josiah Turner, G Nick Johnson, F Angelo Chol
Incoming transfers: None
Early departures: Turner and Natyazhko left for pro basketball after the season.
Chemistry level: Poor. Turner served multiple suspensions, then was arrested on suspicion of extreme DUI after the season, while Perry also fought an off-campus domestic violence charge. The Wildcats dropped off the NCAA tournament bubble with a late-season loss at ASU, then ended their season in embarrassing fashion by losing at home in the NIT.
Finish: Lost to Bucknell in the first round of the NIT.
2012-13: FULL SPEED AHEAD
Scenario: Needing a point guard after the much-hyped Turner fell flat and before transfer T.J. McConnell would become eligible, Miller locked up grad transfer Mark Lyons and the Wildcats quickly re-emerged.
Returnees: F Kevin Parrom (Sr.), F Solomon Hill (Sr.), G Jordin Mayes (Jr.), G Nick Johnson (So.), F Angelo Chol (So.)
Freshmen: F Brandon Ashley, C Kaleb Tarcewski, F Grant Jerrett, G Gabe York
Incoming transfers: G Mark Lyons (Xavier grad transfer)
Early departures: Chol transferred to San Diego State after the season, while Jerrett turned pro.
Chemistry level: Good, then cooling. Thanks to some early heroics from Lyons and Johnson, especially during a memorable Diamond Head Classic championship run, the Wildcats stormed out to a 14-0 start. They faded slightly late in the Pac-12 season, but reached the Sweet 16 by beating Belmont and Harvard.
Finish: Lost to Ohio State in Sweet 16.
2013-14: LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1
Scenario: With McConnell eligible, and a pair of another McDonalds All-Americans coming in (Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson), the Wildcats received their first No. 1 ranking under Miller and kept it for eight weeks.
Returnees: G Jordin Mayes (Sr.), G Nick Johnson (Jr.), F Brandon Ashley (So.), C Kaleb Tarczewski (So.), G Gabe York (So.)
Freshmen: F Aaron Gordon, F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, G Elliott Pitts
Incoming transfers: G T.J. McConnell (Duquesne, sat out as required in 2012-13), F Matt Korcheck (juco, redshirted intentionally in 2012-13)
Early departures: Gordon and Johnson left for the NBA draft after the season.
Chemistry level: Excellent. The amiable Johnson was the Wildcats’ undisputed team leader while both Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson proved selfless despite their considerable talent. That helped UA beat Duke in the preseason and go all the way to a school-record 21-0 before Ashley severely injured his foot at Cal on Feb. 1. The Wildcats lost that game and four others the rest of the way and, it could be argued, would have made the Final Four had Ashley stayed healthy.
Finish: Lost to Wisconsin in NCAA Elite Eight
2014-15: DEJA VU
Scenario: While Gordon and Johnson left early, Stanley Johnson headlined another Top-5 recruiting class that joined a well-regarded veteran core of McConnell, Ashley, Hollis-Jefferson and Tarczewski.
Returnees: G T.J. McConnell (Sr.), F Matt Korcheck (Sr.), F Brandon Ashley (Jr.), C Kaleb Tarczewski (Jr.), G Gabe York (Jr.), F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (So.), G Elliott Pitts (So.)
Freshmen: G Stanley Johnson, G Parker Jackson-Cartwright, C Dusan Ristic, F Craig Victor.
Incoming transfers: None (Ryan Anderson and Kadeem Allen redshirted)
Early departures: Victor transferred to LSU in December, Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson left for the NBA draft.
Chemistry: Cool initially, then better. Despite having to work Johnson’s considerable offensive talents into their system, the Wildcats nearly raced through a third straight undefeated nonconference season before losing at UNLV. UA won the Pac-12 by three games but big upset losses at Oregon State and ASU ultimately cost the Wildcats a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed … and fatally placed them with Wisconsin in the West regional. Again.
Finish: Lost to Wisconsin in NCAA Elite Eight