2001 Final Four t-shirt

It’s time for a new t-shirt. Photo by Wildcat Universe

It’s finally here.

After four up-and-down seasons this is the team Arizona Wildcats basketball coach Sean Miller has been building toward since he arrived in Tucson.

Miller is a defense-first coach who was a pass-first point guard in college. The 2013-’14 Wildcats look to be his first team that combines both traits.

The UA has had some success in Miller’s first four years but it hasn’t been because of defense. The 2011 Elite Eight team was eighth in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage allowed and the 2013 Sweet 16 squad was fifth in the conference in that category.

Securing a prototypical point guard has been even harder. Miller has had a different starter each of his years at the UA: Nic Wise, MoMo Jones, Josiah Turner and Mark Lyons. Wise should’ve won a loyalty medal after playing for four coaches in four years and then you had three transfers (two out and one in).

Is T.J. McConnell (another transfer) finally the answer? On paper he’s exactly what the Wildcats have been looking for and the early reports include words like amazing, dynamic and whoa. I’m going to consider that a positive.

Will this team be positive enough to get Miller to the Final Four for the first time?

There are two ways to cut down the nets in the NCAA tournament. One is to dominate during the regular season, earn a top seed and hold serve in March. That was the formula for teams like the 1988 Wildcats and last year’s Louisville Cardinals.

The other strategy is to peak at the right time and upset people, which worked for the 1997 Cats as well as Michigan and Syracuse last season. This path seems more likely for a young Arizona team replacing three of its top four scorers from a year ago but the goal for the Pac-12 favorites is to land the No. 1 seed in the West Region until it’s not possible.

To do that you need to win big games and the biggest resume-boosting contest on the schedule is a trip to Michigan in December. The other possibility is a showdown with Duke in the final of the Preseason NIT. This makes the early round NIT games with Fairleigh Dickinson and (most likely) Rhode Island big ones, as well as rooting for the Blue Devils (gasp) to join the Wildcats in New York.

Duke and Michigan are just two of the name-brand programs expected to be competing for a trip to Dallas. In fact, if you look the preseason poll, every school in the top 12 has previously won a national championship and eight of the 12 have multiple titles.

Besides being D-first and pass-first, the other assumed strengths of this team – with freshman phenom Aaron Gordon leading the way – are rebounding like beasts and being lethal on the fast break. The general consensus is the primary weakness will be 3-point shooting which could lead to struggles in the half-court offense.

Another thing to watch, especially in the early going, is how the referees’ enforcement of the new defensive contact rules will affect a team that plans to bake its bread on defense. Will there be games where McConnell or Nick Johnson tries to play inside his opponent’s jersey and picks up two quick fouls? Will games devolve into free-throw shooting contests that negate Arizona’s advantages in height and athleticism?

The other question is if this team will pile up enough high-flying highlights to demand a nickname. Los Angeles now boasts both Lob City and the coach behind Dunk City. Will Gordon, Johnson and Gabe York necessitate a Tucson rechristening?

As the season tips off with a televised exhibition game tonight it all adds up to a mountain of optimism among Wildcat Universe. The best part is 2014 should only be the beginning.

While Sean Miller has been building toward (and Arizona fans have been counting down to) this season, it’s not a “win now or else” situation. It’s almost certainly going to be Gordon’s only college year and there could be another couple guys eyeing early departure but nothing about Miller’s recruiting ability suggests he won’t be able to replace them with equal talent.

There’s pressure on those individual players to make this season count but Miller’s just getting started. For the fans this year should feel a lot more like excitedly waiting for Lute Olson’s first Arizona Final Four in the late 1980s as opposed to desperately hoping for one last Olson run in the late 2000s.

It’s here. Enjoy it.

Welcome to the Bold Pueblo.

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