Key Returners: Dylan Smith, Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee
Key Losses: DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright
Key Newcomers: Ryan Luther (Pitt), Chase Jeter (Duke), Justin Coleman (Samford), Brandon Williams, Devonaire Doutrive, Omar Thielemans
Outlook: The Wildcats have an element of American Pie: Band Camp to them this year (just hear me out): basically every player/cast member that endeared us to the previous editions are gone, save for one – Sean Miller/Eugene Levy. Instead, we are left with a bunch of relative unknowns and newcomers, and while Arizona’s bunch is far more promising than the abomination that was Band Camp, Miller still faces a fairly tall task to avoid 2018-19 being a Direct-to-NIT sequel. I think that comparison worked! Plus, I'm sure Sean Miller would love being compared to this guy.
At least for now, Miller appears to have shed the weight of the FBI investigation into his program (all that sweating finally paid off!). At one point this offseason, the Wildcats hadn’t added any players that weren’t on last year’s roster, and things looked bleak. Miller, however, rose to the occasion and brought in two grad transfers (Pitt’s Ryan Luther and Samford’s Justin Coleman) and two Top-100 freshmen (Brandon Williams and Devonaire Doutrive) to drastically bolster the Wildcats’ talent level.
Miller’s Arizona teams have almost always been stout on defense, and in that vein, some of the roster exodus may be addition by subtraction. Roster construction dictated that he play two bigs as his base lineup, and that combined with Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s small stature, Rawle Alkins’s foot injury, and Allonzo Trier’s general disdain for defense made the 2017-18 Wildcats the worst defensive team in Tucson since 2010, Miller’s first year. Despite playing twin 7-footers, Arizona opponents shot a healthy 62.3% at the rim, a surprisingly high rate for having so much size on the court. Duke transfer Chase Jeter isn’t an all-world defender by any means, but he has far more tools on that end than the departed Dusan Ristic (and DeAndre Ayton was often tasked with guarding more perimeter-oriented players), so some improvement in the paint appears likely.
The perimeter is also in need of some improvement; while some of it may be due to luck, Arizona’s opponents shot 35.8% from deep last year (following campaigns of 31.0% and 31.6% previously). The Wildcat guards simply didn’t make things difficult enough for their counterparts. Neither of the grad transfers are renowned for their defense, though, so the wing rotation (Dylan Smith, Brandon Randoph, Emmanuel Akot, Alex Barcello, Doutrive) will need to develop on that end for Miller’s man-to-man-heavy philosophy to be executed properly. Randolph and Akot have the most tools on that end, and if Akot progresses offensively, that may be the Miller combo of choice. The point guard spot is also a coin flip – Coleman was highly productive in Samford’s uptempo attack, but he’s small, and the Bulldogs were also one of the worst defenses in the entire country – meaning the four-star Williams likely has a chance to start from Day 1.
On the other end, with so much production gone from last year’s squad, Miller has work to do to piece together a viable offense. Luther is a big pickup in that regard – he’s a floor-spacing big with a smooth stroke from deep, and his presence should give the entire team more room to work after Ristic/Ayton owned the paint last year. Both Coleman and Williams can get into the lane, although the smaller Coleman is more of a jitterbug, pass-first guard compared to Williams, who is bigger and a better scorer. Barcello may even play some minutes at the point, and he should be more assertive as a sophomore after openly deferring to the more renowned players in his first season.
Arizona was one of the most prolific post up offenses in the country last year, both in frequency (33rd, per Synergy) and efficiency (4th), due to their personnel. Jeter and Luther (and even Ira Lee) offer far different skill sets, though, so a more transition- and/or pick-and-roll-based offense would make sense. The aforementioned wing corps struggled from three, so Miller will need to instill greater confidence within his shooters as they ascend to more prominent roles. Barcello has the best reputation here, but Smith, Randolph, and even Akot could make major strides.
Bottom Line: It’s not a typical Sean Miller roster of 5-star recruits, but the Wildcats have enough talent on the roster to compete in a questionable Pac 12. It may take some time for so many new pieces (and returning players in new roles) to coalesce properly into a collective team, but Miller seems as good a bet as any to bring it all together. Progress defensively and some regression on offense without Ayton and Trier look inevitable, and with so many young players/newcomers, the Wildcats are one of the more “low floor, high ceiling” teams heading into 2018-19.