Welcome to Palestra Back’s Season Preview! All week we’ll be highlighting some of the most fascinating teams in college basketball. These are the best teams or the highest ranked teams, just the handful that we think you’ll want to have an extra eye on over the next few months.
Why Do We Care?
Even if you may not realize it, Arizona is one of the nation’s elite programs. The Wildcats have been ranked in the top 7 of the AP Poll at some point in each of the last 5 seasons and in the top 15 each of the last 7 seasons. Arizona has played in 31 of the past 33 NCAA Tournaments, reaching the second weekend 4 of the past 5 tourneys.
Of course, head coach Sean Miller has never reached the Final Four and fans in Tucson haven’t seen their team reach those heights since 2001. This team has a chance to break that streak.
Who is Gone?
Defensive stopper Kadeem Allen graduated. Underclassmen Kobi Simmons and Chance Comanche left school, only to end up undrafted and battling the (inexplicably renamed) NBA G-League.
The big ticket item in this column, however, is Chicago Bulls rookie sensation Lauri Markannen. The Finnish big man was selected with the 7th overall pick and a cornerstone of the Jimmy Butler trade. He’s been a pleasant surprise to many NBA pundits (though we had him pegged 8th on our board here at Palestra Back). His scoring touch will be missed by Miller’s club at Arizona.
Who is Back?
Very few National Player of the Year candidates enter the season seemingly under the radar, but Arizona guard Allonzo Trier has done just that. After missing the start of last season with a failed drug test following a car accident, Trier played in 18 games for the Wildcats. When he did play, he was sensational. He posted 17.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest as just a sophomore, while also playing lockdown perimeter defense. With a full offseason under his belt this year, he’ll be looked to as the go-to-guy and unquestioned on-court leader for Arizona.
Trier is joined by sophomore guard Rawle Atkins, a double-digit scorer last season whose role should increase this coming year. Also in the backcourt for the Wildcats is all 5’8, 150 pounds of Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who sounds like more of a hedge fund than a point guard. His veteran presence helps Arizona convert opportunities to buckets, especially in transition. In the frontcourt, Serbian “Taken” movie villain Dusan Ristic returns, though he may see a reduced role due to new blood in Tucson.
Who is New?
Ristic likely loses time to super freshman Deandre Ayton, the top ranked center in the incoming class. In fact, until Duke recruit Marvin Bagley reclassified and joined this class, Ayton was considered the top frosh in the nation. He’s a legit 7-foot tall, with athletic flashes and a reliable jump shot. Few players will attract as much attention in the early weeks of the season as Ayton. He’s the cherry on the top of a loaded freshman class for Sean Miller.
Also along for the ride: former Duke Blue Devil Chase Jeter, eager for a chance to make an impact.
AP Poll: #3
Coaches Poll: #5
You can make an argument that Arizona has the best returning player in the nation and the best incoming freshman. You’d be wrong, but hey, you can make the argument. That’s worth a lot in the preseason.
Big Games on the Schedule
The nonconference slate peaks with an early December battle with Texas A&M. In conference, the Pac-12’s two most hyped teams face-off only once, when USC visits Arizona in February.
Header image via Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org