Arizona men’s basketball kicked off the 2016 season Thursday with its official media day. All of the talk from head coach Sean Miller and the rest of the team revolved around the new faces in the building.
“They’re competitors,” senior guard Kadeem Allen said. “Everything they do, they go hard. I’ll say one thing about them: They’ll leave it all out on the court.”
Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins were the five-star recruits who made up the Wildcats’ top-five recruiting class. Simmons started the domino effect of recruits when he signed with the Wildcats on January 16 this year.
There’s a reason Simmons—coming in as the No. 20 recruit in the ESPN 100—was able to have such an effect on other recruits. The 6-foot-5 point guard from Atlanta had a prestigious high school career, including becoming his school’s all-time leading scorer and surpassing the 2,000-point mark. Known for his incredible athleticism, Simmons boasts an impressive 45-inch vertical leap.
“I played the one [point guard] from freshman to junior year, but senior year, I had to slide in to the two [shooting guard] a little bit,” Simmons said. “I had to be more of a scorer.”
Shortly after him came fellow freshman Alkins, who Simmons says he helped recruit.
“Me and Rawle had a great relationship before we got here,” Simmons said. “We played in a camp not too long before I committed and we were on the same team. So I think that sealed the deal. I led the camp in assists, and he got most of them.”
Alkins, listed at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, is known for his physical style of play. Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Alkins started his recruitment process without Arizona on his short list.
Miller began recruiting Alkins after watching him play in a tournament in Detroit. For Alkins, Oregon snapping Arizona’s home winning streak last season was the icing on the cake.
“Everyone was crying, they were upset, they thought it was over with my recruitment,” Alkins said. “For me, that helped them. It was like the world ends when you lose, and I like that. That game boosted my interest in Arizona.”
Simmons was seen as the lead man in this year’s recruiting class, but not to be outdone is 7-foot Finnish forward Markkanen, who has his teammates and Miller raving.
“Lauri is a great player,” sophomore center Chance Comanche said. “He’s just a giant guard at 7-feet, basically. He has great ball-handling skills, limitless range and he is insanely athletic for his height.”
Coach Miller was just as impressed by the center.
“[Markkanen] approaches [the game] like a professional,” Miller said. “He’s not soft; he’s the real thing in terms of his pedigree. His training has prepared him well. He’s very skilled and a lot of times when you’re a skilled front court player, you’re about 6-foot-8. ... Lauri is 6-foot-11 [7-foot]. His size is striking; he looks like a center but he’s very skilled [at] shooting the ball. I think he’ll make his mark right away.”
Markkanen is the highest-rated NBA prospect for the Wildcats, according to DraftExpress. A 7-foot forward who handles the ball like a guard and likes to attack from the outside; the obvious Dirk Nowitzki comparisons have already been made.
Markkanen never played high school basketball, opting instead to play in Finland’s Pro B division. He also led his country in the FIBA U20 tournament, where he was named to the all-tournament team despite Finland finishing 15th out of 16 teams.
Miller believes that Markkanen has the ability to defy the stigma surrounding European players and their toughness.
“He’s not a rail-thin skinny freshman from Finland, that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Miller said.
When asked about the stigma, Markkanen expressed his desire to break the mold.
“I’m trying to be the opposite,” he said. “I want to play tough. I like contact.”
Nobody has forgotten about the talent returning from last year’s team, either.
Allonzo Trier, a leading scorer last season, returns as a sophomore along with fellow sophomore Ray Smith.
Smith, a five-star recruit last year, is back from his second ACL injury in as many years. There were lofty expectations set for Smith when he arrived on campus a year ago, and he is itching to get back on the floor this season.
“With how much I wanted to compete [...] to have to watch [the team] compete every day was something that just hurt me,” Smith said. “Finally getting that taste of competition again, I’m starting to get my swagger back and I’m starting to believe in who I am again.”
One big question surrounding media day was who will emerge as the team leader. With the departures of seniors Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York, Allen is the only senior on this year’s squad, and Miller expects him to lead.
“[Allen will] have the utmost respect of this year’s team because of how hard he plays,” Miller said. “He’s really unselfish and a very talented player. He might not be someone who talks a lot but that’s OK. Leading by example is every bit as powerful as what you say.”
Trier’s play, however, is arguably the most important facet of this year’s team. The Wildcats’ offense will be more versatile this season, but will still rely on the sophomore guard’s playmaking ability.
“He came back for all the right reasons. I’ve never been around a player that I have seen in the gym more than him,” Miller said. “I think he’ll be one of the best guards in the country and certainly one of the best guards in the Pac-12 [Conference] this year. He was tremendous last year as a freshman and he’ll add to that. If healthy, I think he’ll have a big, big year. He’s earned it.”
Miller has pegged Trier as one of the team’s leaders, and Trier is ready to answer the call.
“One of the biggest changes for me this year is having a different seat on the bus,” Trier said. “Being called upon to do different things. ... But I’ve put a lot of time in to make sure I’m ready [to lead].”
With the mix of returning starters and the shiny new freshman class, Tucsonans and Wildcat fans everywhere are once again dreaming of a Final Four.
“The fact that it’s in Phoenix [Glendale], you do the math on that, what that would feel like [for us],” Miller said.
The Wildcats held their first practice Sunday, and will play the the Red-Blue Game on October 14 in McKale Center.
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