McKale Center overpass

McKale is once again the home of high-end college hoops. Photo by Wildcat Universe

With the football regular season behind us, it is the time of year when we like to give Wildcat multitaskers an update on the hoops team. Let’s get up to speed on a unique Arizona Basketball squad, the likes of which we may not see for a while.

The good news is this break from football is happening a week later than normal and the Cats’ bowl game is better than normal. The great news is the BasketCats are once again poised for another outstanding campaign.

What did I miss?
The key moments through ten games were securing another win in Hawaii over a gritty San Diego State team, an overtime victory over still-top-10 Gonzaga and a rout-of-all-routs against a Michigan group that was supposed to be good but isn’t.

What is this team’s strength?
Arizona is still a very good defensive team but this year’s lineup is more steals-based. The Cats are averaging over eight thefts a game compared to just under six per contest a year ago.

What about the offense?
It’s still a work in progress but the shooting percentage is up a bit this year. The positive is six of the nine rotation players are shooting above 50% with four of them north of 55% from the floor.

And the free throws?
This one isn’t so good. The team percentage is the same as last year (66%), which is bad since Aaron Gordon’s 42% is off the books. The problem is only Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has shown significant improvement thus far over last year (from 68% to 75%).

Wait, did you say nine rotation players?
Indeed. This team is deeper than any Sean Miller has had in Tucson. He has a true backup point guard in freshman Parker Jackson-Cartwright (27 assists and only five turnovers), a legitimate backup center in freshman Dusan Ristic (62% shooting) and a successful second-unit gunner in Elliott Pitts (10-for-20 on 3-pointers). Oh, and Miller has the best sixth-man in the country in Hollis-Jefferson.

How is Rondae not starting?!
He volunteered to come off the bench to allow heralded freshman Stanley Johnson and junior guard Gabe York to start.

Is Stanley as good as advertised?
Oh yes. He leads the team in scoring, he’s second in rebounding and steals, and he shoots a high percentage (51% from the floor and 39% from behind the arc). Plus his hair game is only matched by his shoe game.

What about the rest of Pac-12?
Utah became the first team to beat top-11 Wichita State in the regular season in two seasons. The Utes also came back from 21 down against Kansas to take the lead with four minutes left but lost at the end. Washington is undefeated and ranked but needed a 50-point second half to beat Eastern Washington by four.

The conference appears to be making progress but there are still scores like Wyoming 56, Colorado 33 and Army 85, USC 77 that make you shake your head, and Oregon’s loss to Michigan looks pretty icky right now.

It sounds like the Cats should again dominate the league.
If the UA doesn’t win its 27th regular-season conference championship it will be a major upset.

Is it now-or-never with this program?
You can’t say never but there is a sense of urgency with this team. Point guard T.J. McConnell is a senior. Sophomore Hollis-Jefferson is projected as a first-rounder and Johnson is this year’s Gordon. I expect Brandon Ashley to rise up draft boards as he continues to prove himself after last year’s injury and seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski is draftable whenever he declares. The entire crunch-time lineup could leave after the season so there’s definitely pressure to make this one count.

What happens next year?
Miller has the top-rated recruiting class waiting in the wings.

Doesn’t that mean they’re all going to go pro after one season?
It does appear there are a couple prime one-and-done candidates. That’s why the UA is already working on another elite class for 2016.

Is Sean Miller about to go full Kentucky?
I do think that’s where this program is headed. Miller’s friendship with UK’s John Calipari is well documented and he is just as ferocious a recruiter. I expect the star-studded classes to get bigger and better and that means a lot of early draft entrants.

Granted, there are no guarantees that every five-star player that comes to Arizona will be gone after a single season. Bash and Zeus certainly didn’t expect to play three years of college ball when they signed together in 2012. But put it this way: It could be a long time before the Wildcats start four upperclassmen again.

Give it to me straight: Final Four finally?
Like last year it will be really important to secure that No. 1 seed in the West which would mean playing the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games in Los Angeles. The other regional final locales are Syracuse, Cleveland and Houston. It would not be fun facing Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin, Louisville or Kansas in any of those cities.

There is nothing to suggest that this team will not win another 30+ games and be playing for the Final Four on Sat. Mar. 28, 2015 at Staples Center in L.A.

Then we’ll see if that sense of urgency pays off.

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