Considering it’s still only September, there’s a strange feeling Sean Miller has about the Arizona Wildcats these days.
He already knows them pretty well.
Just two years ago, Miller and other college basketball coaches weren’t allowed to hold practices in the summer, and they couldn’t begin full-length workouts until mid-October.
But in 2012, limited offseason summertime workouts were allowed and, this year, full practices could begin six weeks before a team’s first game. For Arizona, that meant practice could begin Friday.
“I feel like we’ve been at it for a while,” Miller said.
Still, there are a few more questions that could come into focus now that the Wildcats will have 30 full-length practices between this weekend and their Nov. 8 opener against Cal Poly.
1. What’s the adjustment to T.J. McConnell?
Sometimes lost in the discussion about the back-to-back powerhouse recruiting classes that Miller has landed is the fact that he also brought in a true point guard for the first time at Arizona. (Well, he did have a true point guard two years ago in Josiah Turner, but that didn’t exactly turn out as planned.)
While the Wildcats may take some getting used to McConnell on a full-time basis, after having scoring-minded lead guards such as MoMo Jones and Mark Lyons in recent seasons, this shouldn’t be a difficult adjustment.
Not only has McConnell already practiced with the Wildcats for a year now, while sitting out as a Duquesne transfer, but he also actually enjoys passing first.
“When I was younger, I watched John Stockton, and growing up, I watched Steve Nash,” McConnell said. “I just tried to be like those guys, to make their teammates happy by getting them shots. If I get assists, that’s what counts.”
Miller said McConnell can actually “make the game look different” because he knows what coaches and teammates want, and can better help by quickly adjusting to what defenses UA faces. McConnell is also known as an excellent defender, having averaged 2.8 steals per game over two years at Duquesne.
2. With all UA’s talent, length and quickness, will the defense extend more often?
After suggesting during the summer that the Wildcats might more often deploy a full-court pressure and trapping, Miller appeared to start backing off that idea during his preseason media day Wednesday.
“We’re going to mix in picking up fullcourt, but we’re not as deep as maybe it appears,” Miller said. “That’s one of the concerns I have. Hopefully we can be healthy. We have a lot of different players who can play multiple positions, but I don’t think you’re going to see us play 10 or 11 players. We may play eight. But those eight guys are interchangeable.
“At times we can show a different (defensive) look and trap. But what I hope you see is a better version of man-to-man defense and that if we can mix in a zone, that we do it well, if we mix in a fullcourt press or a trapping scheme, that we do it well. I hope it will be that we do what we’ve done even better.”
3. So if there’s only an eight-man rotation, who’s out?
The obvious assumption is that well-regarded newcomers McConnell, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson join returning starters Nick Johnson, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley in the rotation. Then there’s senior combo guard Jordin Mayes, who finished last season strongly and continues to draw praise from Miller.
That’s seven. If Kansas transfer Zach Peters can get medically cleared, after the NCAA allowed him to play this season, he will likely take another full-time or part-time spot in the rotation.
Then there’s redshirt junior Matt Korcheck, who could be just outside the regular rotation as a ninth or 10th man, playing a spot role off the bench, possibly similar to what Angelo Chol gave UA last season before transferring to San Diego State.
Depending on Mayes’ success, or whether Miller opts to use nine at times, UA could also turn to either Gabe York and Elliott Pitts in the backcourt. Both are shooting guards, but York is a sophomore who already had a year of mental and physical adjustments to the system, and Pitts is a true freshman who arrived at UA with just 170 pounds on his 6-foot-5-inch frame this summer.
“Elliott’s shown a great attitude,” Miller said. “His best days are ahead of him, and that doesn’t mean he’s not a good player now — but when you’re going to see the best of Elliott Pitts it’s not going to be this season.
“He weighs about 175 now, and when he weighs 185 or 190, and that time will come, some of the things he doesn’t do well right now he will do. Some of the things he does well right now I think he can be great at. He can be a contributor to this year’s team, but whether he is or isn’t, his best days are ahead of him.”
If that sounds like Pitts is a candidate for redshirting, well, Pitts said he didn’t think he would. At this point, for him, it’s all about adjustments.
“I’m just going to try to help the team any way I can this year,” Pitts said. “Whatever Coach needs me to do, I’ll do.”
4. Where does Aaron Gordon play?
There never has been any doubt that the heavily decorated freshman from San Jose, Calif., is good enough to play for the Wildcats this season. He’s so good, in fact, that this is expected to be his only season (Draft Express projects him as the No. 4 pick in the 2014 NBA draft).
The only question is where he plays.
At 6-8 and 210 pounds, Gordon projects as a natural power forward. But he also wants to play small forward, and UA can use him there after losing Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom.
Miller has said freshman often struggle to play both forward spots, because of the different duties each requires but said Gordon can handle it in large part because he can defend small forwards.
Gordon will have the fall to prove it but already believes he can.
“You can only play a 3-2-1 spot if you can guard the 3-2-1 spots,” Gordon said of the perimeter positions, “and I think I’m capable of doing that.”
Gordon appears likely to play both forward spots, probably starting at small forward and then shifting inside to join Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczeski or Peters.
That scenario, which allows defensive-minded Hollis-Jefferson to play the three, or gives Nick Johnson the chance to become a third guard in a smaller lineup, offers Miller a mouth-watering array of options.
“If you can imagine Aaron and Brandon, two really versatile forwards, with three guards, we can show that look,” Miller said. “Part of our depth isn’t in numbers. It’s in the versatility that we have. We certainly can be big … if you have someone like Aaron play the small forward.”
5. Can they find a comfort (against the) zone?
The Sweet 16 appearance is hardly the only thing Miller remembers vividly about last season. There was also that first loss of the season, at Oregon, and a second-half home skid into a costly loss against California.
The Ducks and Bears succeeded in part because of zone defenses that threw off the Wildcats.
“I don’t know if our team executed as well against the zone on those two games — and we were one or two wins away from having a good season (be) a great season or a great season to be outstanding,” Miller said. “I want to make sure that we’re really comfortable playing against a zone, and we’re not necessarily a zone team.”
The Cats can expect even more tests against the zone this season, Miller said. Not only do opponents have the Cal and Oregon games to study from last season but they also may be more tempted to zone the Wildcats, considering UA’s talent and size in the frontcourt, and relatively unproven shooters.
Miller said the Wildcats spent a great deal of time over the summer working on their shooting — and that guards Johnson, Mayes, York, McConnell and Pitts can all shoot well.
Now, UA’s focus is also on practicing those shots, and that offense, against a variety of zones the Wildcats may face.
“Sometimes early in the year, because you’re working on so much (of your own system), you don’t deal with the things or styles that you don’t do yourself,” Miller said.
“We don’t want to approach this season like that. It’s important we get a lot of reps against different defenses and get comfortable right out of the chute.”