Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson’s freshman season wasn’t a slam dunk.
Photo by Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

As soon as your favorite team gets done with this year you start looking toward next year.

For the Arizona Wildcats three key seniors will be replaced by four incoming freshmen. If you look at the recruiting rankings the new players will significantly upgrade the talent on the roster.

After an up-and-down 2012, however, UA fans would be wise to keep next year’s expectations in check.

I fully expect next year’s Wildcat hoops team to be better than this year’s. For one, it’ll look like an honest-to-goodness basketball team. The starting lineup will feature two guards, two forwards and a center. The rotation will be deep enough and diverse enough that no one will stand chest-high to the man he’s guarding.

After the 2011 Elite Eight run I prepared for one year of transition before a return to Arizona dominance. A fat stack of wins, a high NCAA tournament seed and saying goodbye to bubble talk and getting back to “I can’t believe our region is so tough” complaints.

A year to deal with life without Derrick Williams and then four new Derrick Williamses show up to cut down every net in sight.

But last year’s recruiting class was rated in the top five nationally with both Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson projected among the 20 best players in the country. Neither looked it his freshman year.

Turner got better on the court as the season progressed but he didn’t even finish the year on the court due to his string of suspensions.

Johnson’s offensive production got worse as the year went on. He shot 46% from the field and 40% on 3-pointers over his first 11 games, then 38% and 37% over the next month, and finally 30% from the floor and 25% from beyond the arc over the last two months of the season.

Angelo Chol went from non-existent to a contributor over the course of the year but he only played 20 minutes in a game once in conference play.

This is not to say all three of these guys won’t eventually reach the level of their high school projections but it didn’t happen in year one. Considering that next year’s UA team will rely even more on first-year players it’s probably best to rein in the fan goals for 2013.

Next season looks like it’ll be a classic “year away” team. Extremely talented but young and raw. Flashes of greatness counterbalanced by moments of inexperience and immaturity.

What you want to see in 2012-’13 is players coming together, learning their roles and moving toward becoming a cohesive unit. Oh, and no off-court issues. A season without suspensions or transfers (or players itching to go pro) would work wonders toward returning Arizona Basketball to the program’s previous heights.

I will be very surprised if this top-ranked incoming freshman class stays intact for more than two years. I was hoping it would be two years of Final Four contention but we may be looking at a single shot at supreme hoops greatness for this group. The key for Sean Miller will be to continue bringing in elite talent (and getting players to stay multiple years) so the transitions will be smoother from year to year.

Another key will be this year’s freshman guards become sophomore stars. I’m not giving up on them but there’s a lot of work to be done. If Kyle Fogg, a career 38% 3-point shooter at the time, took 39,000 shots the summer before his senior year, Johnson needs to take 139,000. Turner should be there with him, if he still has a key to the gym. Work hard now, and when the new freshmen hit campus, work hard together.

Wildcat fans should remain optimistic about the future. Even with Bucknell and the NIT this is still an exciting time. For those of us who weren’t around at the start of the Lute Olson era this is a chance to watch the rise of a program.

Let’s not allow impatience to keep us from enjoying the ride.

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Scott Terrell is waiting for patience. Take your time on Twitter and Facebook.