Expectations are a funny thing in college basketball. The context surrounding those expectations depends on the specific program, and when it comes to the Wildcats of McKale, they’re usually as high as the peaks of Mt. Lemmon.
With four Final Fours, countless Elite Eights and conference championships galore, Arizona’s trophy cabinet and ceiling drapery serve more as a museum than a collection of shelves and banners.
The hardware that collects dusts in the annals of the McKale Center serve as the foundation for the seemingly ridiculous expectations that Sean Miller and his program carry with them almost every fall. This year is an exception to the rule.
This is the first time since the 2010-2011 season that Arizona isn’t ranked in the top-16 in the AP Preseason Poll, with four of the interim seasons seeing the Wildcats in the top-10. Having players like Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson and DeAndre Ayton will do that. This year’s team does not have a player projected to be picked in the top half of the NBA Draft Lottery, which has contributed to Arizona flying under the media for the first time in a while.
The lack of attention might just be the exact thing that is needed for this unheralded Wildcat team. This team can grow in the shadows, completely buy in to Sean Miller’s coaching and play as a team. The Maui Invitational serves as the only true chance the team gets to show what kind of team they are before the conference schedule starts.
The Wildcats don’t have the usual standout player that acts as a cornerstone of the team, style-wise. This year’s team knows it has to rely on a collective effort of six or seven guys on a nightly basis if it wants to hang with Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington this year in a strong Pac-12 conference, never mind the likes of Duke, Kentucky or Villanova on a national scale.
Not to beat a dead horse, but the FBI cloud that has been hanging over the Arizona program put a massive dent in the Wildcats’ 2018 recruiting class. The arrest of Book Richardson and the ESPN story about the alleged tapes of Sean Miller talking about payment for DeAndre Ayton scared away many of the top players in the class, many of whom were going to give the Wildcats a seat at the table in their recruitment.
Luckily for Miller, he has taken no time in picking up where he left off, picking up commitments from AAU teammates and top-15-overall prospects in point guard Nico Mannion and Josh Green. The Wildcats’ only top-15 recruit that is on the roster is Chase Jeter, who was at Duke for two years and saw game action from the bench for a majority of his time in Durham, leading to his transfer to Arizona.
The team is filled with back-end top-100 players, such as Brandon Randolph, Ira Lee and Emmanuel Akot, who should all be taking the next step in their basketball careers as they take on their sophomore season. The young group is also supplemented by the gem of the recruiting class, top-40 guard Brandon Williams, and smart, veteran transfers in Ryan Luther and Justin Coleman.
These players on paper aren’t going to blow anybody away, but games are played on hardwood, where Sean Miller has the opportunity to produce his greatest coaching accomplishment since Derrick Williams and Co. shellacked Duke and gave eventual NCAA Champs Kemba Walker and UConn a game in the Elite Eight.
If the Wildcats can come together and become a strong collective unit by the time March comes around, the rest of the nation will have no choice but to pay attention to the Wildcats. However, that’s a long way away, and a lot can happen. That’s why they roll the ball out and play the game.
The unheralded team will have all of the doubters to prove wrong, and we’ll see if Sean Miller can turn that into fuel for his team.
Editor's note: David Skinner is an assistant sports editor who covers Arizona football and basketball.
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